In Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytic theory of personality, the reality principle strives to satisfy the id's desires in realistic and socially appropriate ways. The reality principle weighs the costs and benefits of an action before deciding to act upon or abandon an impulse.
Have you ever had a sudden urge to do something that you know isn't appropriate for that situation? Perhaps when you spy a cute shirt on sale you feel a sudden urge to try it on; right now, in the middle of the store. It is the reality principle that staves off this urge and allows you to behave in a manner that is suitable for the time and place. Later, when you are in a more appropriate environment,(like safely in the confines of the nearest dressing room) you can then engage in the behavior and satisfy your needs.
The Reality Principle at Work
Remember, the id is the primal part of personality that seeks instant gratification of all needs, demands, and urges. If we acted only based on the demands of the id, we might find ourselves grabbing food out of someone else's hands when we are hungry or getting too friendly with someone else's spouse when we're feeling amorous. The id is ruled by the pleasure principle, or the idea that impulses need to be fulfilled immediately.
The ego, on the other hand, is the component of personality that is forced to deal with the demands of reality. The ego acts to ensure that the demands of the id are satisfied in ways that are effective and appropriate. Therefore, the ego is ruled by the reality principle.
The reality principle forces us to consider the risks, requirements and outcomes of various decisions. One way it does this is by temporarily halting the discharge of the id's energy until a suitable time and place. The ego does not strive to block the urge. Instead, it works to ensure that the id's needs are met in ways that are safe, realistic and appropriate. For example, if you are hungry, instead of grabbing a slice of pizza out of your friend's hand, the ego will force you to wait until you can go buy your own slice. This delay is accomplished through what is known as the secondary process.
As you might imagine, the reality principle and the pleasure principle are constantly at odds. Because of this role the ego plays, it is often referred to as having an executive or mediating role in personality. The ego constantly engages in what is known as reality testing; it must come up with realistic plans of action that can satisfy our needs.
Freud himself often compared these two components of personality to that of a horse and rider. The horse represents the id; ruled by the pleasure principle, it seeks only to fulfill its needs, but it also provides the energy needed to propel the two forward. The rider represents the ego; guided by the reality principle, it harnesses the energy of the id and directs it in ways designed to guide it in the most appropriate direction.
The Hallmark of a Mature Personality
The ability to control impulses and delay gratification is one of the hallmarks of a mature personality. Throughout childhood, kids learn how to control their urges and behave in ways that are socially appropriate. Researchers have found that children who are better at delaying gratification may have better defined egos, because they tend to be more concerned with things such as social appropriateness and responsibility.
Freud, S. (1933). New introductory lectures on psychoanalysis. New York: Norton. (Translated by W. J. H. Sprott).
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Mischel, W. (1961). Delay of gratification, need for achievement, and acquiescence in another culture. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 62, 543-552.
Zern, D. (1973). Competence reconsidered: The concept of secondary process development as a explanation of "competence" phenomena. The Journal of Genetic Psychology, 122, 135-162.