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Freud’s Theory of Superego in Personality

Freud’s theory of superego in personality posits that the superego acts as the morality center and conscience, creating the inner voice that speaks up whenever a decision is needed. Freud’s theory of superego is one of three pillars that comprise his broad theory of personality. Austrian psychologist Sigmund Freud identified and defined the three distinct centers of the human psyche as the id, the ego, and the superego in his 1923 book The Ego and the Id.

Sigmund Freud Superego Theory of Personality
Analysis of Sigmund Freud’s tripartite model of superego

The superego is a vital part of the psyche that directly opposes and counterbalances the id, which runs on raw lust and primitive desires. The perfect moral ideal drives the superego and always strives to ensure an individual makes the right decision based on their moral center. Feelings of pride, guilt, and shame all come about due to the superego’s response to thoughts and actions taken in both the conscious and unconscious parts of the human psyche.

Morality and integrity are the key characteristics that define the superego. The desire to be perfect and react in an ultimately pristine way drives the superego’s decisions based on the fundamental principles instilled between the ages of three and six. The superego is complimented and reasoned with by the ego, which seeks to balance the demands of the primitive id and the saintly ideals of the superego. All three centers of the human psyche are equally important and rely on the other two to function and ensure healthy progression through childhood and adulthood.

What is the principle of superego?

The primary principle of the superego according to Sigmund Freud is morality. Freud identifies the superego as the moral compass that guides an individual’s every thought and action through conscious and unconscious processes. A person’s superego exists to balance their id and ego, and is driven by the moral and ethical code instilled through familial, cultural, and environmental influences. The superego draws from the reservoir of psychic energy and accounts for feelings of doubt, guilt, and anxiety.

What is the history of Freud’s Theory of Superego in personality?

The documented history of Freud’s theory of the superego in personality takes root in his foundational psychoanalytic explorations detailed in The Interpretation of Dreams, published in 1899 by Franz Deuticke. Freud observed that human behavior often appeared to be irrational and driven by unseen forces, leading him to explore and explain the internal conflicts, motivations, and unconscious drives that influence human behavior and the development of mental disorders. The Interpretation of Dreams thus delineated the human mind into conscious, unconscious, and preconscious realms. Freud went on to refine these concepts into the interrelated but distinct structures of the id, ego, and superego in his 1920 essay, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, and more extensively in his 1923 work, The Ego and the Id.

In the earlier paradigm introduced in The Interpretation of Dreams, the conscious mind is related to self-awareness, and the unconscious is the reservoir of repressed and inaccessible information and desires. The preconscious, on the other hand, holds the latent thoughts and memories which can be retrieved into consciousness. The superego aligns with the moral aspect of this model, representing the ethical values and societal norms internalized by an individual. It acts as the moral arbitrator, mediating between the primal urges of the id and the reality-oriented considerations of the ego, imposing moralistic constraints on the psyche’s desires and thoughts.

However, modern studies of Freud’s biography reveal traces of the theory of superego predating The Interpretation of Dreams. Foundational elements of the superego appear in Freud’s unpublished 1895 work Project for a Scientific Psychology, which outlines his early thoughts on the structure and functioning of the mind. This work examines the neural mechanisms underlying mental processes, the concept of repression, as well as the significance of memories and traumas. This material laid foundational thoughts on unconscious processes and defensive mechanisms. The early notions of repression and defense mechanisms offered nascent forms of the conceptual conflicts between the id and superego, with the ego as a mediator.

What are the contents of a person’s superego?

The contents of a person’s superego are the very fiber of their morality. Freud pontificated that the combination of parental influence and societal pressure instilled an individual’s moral fiber. Freud established the still-supported theory that the human psyche comprises three core sectors. The superego exists across both the conscious and unconscious planes of thought, acting as a balancing mechanism along with the ego to compensate for the primate and desire-driven id.

The contents of the superego specifically focus on moral development. Freud maintained that development begins with the base understanding of right and wrong before growing into the more complex world of social acceptance. The concept of social acceptance entails the subtleties and nuances of differentiating between what is viewed as right and wrong by mass consensus, versus what is morally right and wrong based on independent and individual value systems.

What is the function of the theory of superego?

The function of the superego theory is to act as the morality center and to be the voice of reason behind every conscious and unconscious decision a person makes. The superego is characterized as the angel that sits on your shoulder, telling the more devilish id element of personality that what it wants to do is wrong. The superego develops in everybody between the ages of 3 and 6. During this time, the foundations are laid for where individuals place everything on the morality scale. The superego adjusts and evolves as a person ages and becomes exposed to more elements of society and life stressors. Every thought, intent, or action is first filtered through the superego. The correct choice is not guaranteed, and in such instances, the superego is there to produce feelings of guilt and anxiety as the realization of a poor decision hits home. The superego continues to function on an unconscious level. It is to blame for those seemingly random and inexplicable emotions that overwhelm from time to time, emotional reactions to a bad thought or idea that never truly formed.

What are the strengths of the superego?

There are three primary strengths of the Superego. Firstly, the concept of morality is a vital strength of the superego. Strong morals allow individuals to see the difference between right and wrong based on the circumstances and the situation surrounding them. Secondly, the superego helps to maintain social harmony. By governing what an individual sees as right and wrong on the pivoting spectrum of social interaction, the superego enables a person to make morally correct yet socially harmonizing decisions that foster a sense of community and cooperation. Finally, the superego helps with the development of empathy. The superego drives a person to make moral decisions, which fosters an understanding of the needs and feelings of others, thus aiding in building stronger levels of empathy and compassion.

What are the examples of the superego in Personality?

Below are five examples of the superego in personality.

  • Guilt: Feelings of guilt arise from the superego as a direct result of a decision that runs against the grain of an individual’s moral code, leaving behind the notion that they could have done better or that a different choice could have been made.
  • Worry: Worry is a feeling created by the superego that correlates to social pressures and an internalized need to be seen in a particular or positive light. A strong superego creates a personality that actively seeks external validation.
  • Responsibility: A sense of responsibility manifests in the superego based on the formative concepts of right and wrong. The moral code that resides in the superego fosters a clear sense of social responsibility, even in the unconscious psyche, and makes people more trustworthy and reliable.
  • Monogamy: The propensity of monogamy is rooted in the superego. Choosing not to cheat on a partner even when there is no chance of being caught is the work of the superego and its firm moral anchor.
  • Work ethic: Morality goes beyond what is right and wrong but also encompasses an internal set of standards to which an individual holds themselves accountable. A strong work ethic indicates a strong superego, driving people to maintain a high standard in all aspects of their lives.

The examples of the superego in personality are outwardly displayed in every decision a person makes.

What are the characteristics of the Superego?

Below are five characteristics of the superego.

  • Morality: A key characteristic of the superego is the core understanding of right and wrong. A moral compass is the guiding light by which the superego is defined.
  • Integrity: The superego is characterized by the level of integrity an individual displays. An individual with integrity has strong morals and sticks to what they deem correct.
  • Dynamism: The superego is dynamic. The last of the three elements of the psyche to form, it changes as an individual grows and is exposed to more cultures, belief systems, and moral dilemmas.
  • Criticism: The superego is a person’s harshest critic. Feelings of guilt, anxiety, unworthiness, pride, and shame all stem from the superego and act as mechanisms for self-judgment.
  • Harmony: The superego sits between the consciousness-dwelling ego and the desire-drive id of the unconscious, acting as a harmonizing agent between the two.

The characteristics of the superego are evidenced in an individual’s ability to determine right from wrong and make decisions that align with their moral code as opposed to blanket group consensus.

What are the parts of the superego?

The ego ideal and the conscience are the two parts of the superego, as posited by Freud in 1923.

  • Ego ideal: The good half of the superego, the ego ideal, is where aspirations are born. Good behaviors and positive reinforcement come from this part of the superego.
  • Conscience: The conscience is the part of the superego that stores our understanding of what is wrong. Negative emotions and childhood memories of punishment and consequence originate from this part of the superego.

Ego ideal

The ego ideal is the positive and aspirational section of the superego. The ego ideal is responsible for feelings of positive accomplishment, such as pride and self-worth. As a person grows, the ego ideal is responsible for their drive and ambition. However, it is important that the ego ideal is kept aligned with personal well-being, as when it becomes too rigid or unrealistic, it results in potentially negative consequences such as lower self-esteem and an abundance of negative emotions.


The conscience is the critical side of the superego. The conscience is where the moral base finds its roots, and the voice of prohibitive thoughts calls home. As people develop, their conscience becomes their moral guide, telling them how to behave based on what they have learned to be right and wrong. The conscience is the behavioral regulation center of the psyche and controls how individuals behave in social situations. Individuals with a highly strict conscience find themselves languishing in guilt for even the slightest divergence from what they believe to be morally correct.

Both the conscience and the ego ideal must maintain a happy medium and remain in balance to ensure healthy values are maintained inwardly, which in turn makes people well-balanced and happy externally.

How does the superego interact with other components of personality?

The superego interacts with the other components of personality in opposition to the primal id and through mediation by the ego. The superego exists across the conscious, preconscious, and unconscious levels of consciousness according to Freud’s personality theory. The id exists only in the unconscious and operates on a primitive level. The id sees, wants, and must have something akin to a primal conception of a caveman. The superego exists to stand as a direct opponent of primitive id-based thought and offers contextual shading through a moral lens. The ego exists across all three levels of consciousness; however, it merely dabbles with the unconscious psyche. The superego interacts with the ego through means of compromise. The superego presents the perfect moral decision, which the ego knows is not always a feasible option. As such, the ego works with the superego by shifting its view towards the murky ground that is morally correct but tarnished by a mix of practicality and possibility. The superego has an impact on everything from behavior to decision-making and personal growth via interactions with each of the other two parts of the human psyche.

How does the theory of the superego affect personality?

The theory of the superego affects personality by actively shaping how an individual engages with the world by driving the moral conscience that filters and validates their decision-making. The superego provides the moral foundations upon which an individual’s personality rests. From self-evaluation to social interactions and health development, the superego plays a direct and pivotal role.

There are three key ways the theory of superego directly affects personality. Firstly, through the creation and management of internal conflict. Every quandary an individual finds themselves facing is an interaction riven by the superego. Whenever a person pauses to contemplate the ‘should I or shouldn’t I’ debate, that is the superego challenging the primitive lusting of the id. The results of this inner debate shape an individual’s personality by altering the way they choose to engage with the world around them. Secondly, via the forging of defense mechanisms and safety triggers that allow a person to avoid or divert away from situations that are too intense or threaten to overwhelm them. An individual’s personality develops and is guided by how they handle and react to life stresses. The safety mechanisms created by the superego are directly responsible for a portion of that development. Finally, the superego affects personality by setting the benchmarks for our own self-image. Self-image directly impacts the level of pride an individual finds in their own accomplishments and, therefore, manifests in their personality and the way they approach situations.

What is the importance of the theory of superego to an individual?

The importance of the theory of superego for an individual is the insight it provides into a greater understanding of self and the clarity that facilitates a view towards positive growth, development, and establishing inner tranquility. There are three core reasons why the theory of superego is important to an individual. Firstly, the superego facilitates inner reflection and self-analysis. The superego exists on the unconscious level of human consciousness and, as such, reacts to thoughts and makes decisions that the individual never realized they had had. This process is responsible for sudden and inexplicable pangs of guilt and regret. Understanding the theory of superego explains these emotions, helping individuals understand what they are experiencing. Secondly, the importance of the superego cannot be understated when it comes to therapy and personal growth. Addressing issues surrounding deep-seated guilt or a sense of self-shame stems from the superego. Finally, the superego is important because it facilitates understanding how an individual approaches and handles interpersonal relationships. Examining the role of the superego and the elements that influence it, people are in a better position to understand how to structure their personal relationships.

What are the differences between id, ego, and superego?

The below table examines the differences between the id, ego, and superego in the human psyche.

Id, Ego, and Superego Differences
Id Ego Superego
The id is primitive and driven by raw responses. The ego is rational and seeks to balance the id by finding an appropriate response for the situation. The superego is the moral center and stands to oppose the id by looking for the most morally correct responses.
The id is the raw component of the psyche and functions on lust, appetite, and desire. The ego is the psyche’s mediator and works to balance the lust and morality centers. The superego functions as the moral compass that governs social behavior and interactions.
The id functions on the pleasure principle. The ego functions on the reality principle. The superego functions on the morality principle.
The id is present immediately from birth and is driven by life and death instincts. The ego develops from the id and forms towards the end of infancy. The superego develops last, between 3 and 6 years, and is driven by the conscious and ego ideal.
The id seeks instant gratification when stressed. The ego remains realistic when responding to stress. The superego seeks the most morally correct solution when stressed.

Can you access and evaluate the superego in personality through introspection?

Yes, it is possible to access and evaluate the superego in personality through introspection. The superego is the voice of reason that sits inside everybody. The superego is the whisper that reminds us of right and wrong, even when we don’t realize it is there. Introspection is the best way to access and evaluate any internal and highly personal process. The superego exists across all levels of human consciousness, so some aspects of how our superego works are inaccessible to us. However, those hidden or unconscious elements of the superego work to the same guiding principles and ethical code we instill in ourselves through conscious thought.

Do we have to open and explore our superego?

No, we do not have to open and explore our superego. However, exploring the superego allows individuals better to understand the depth and complexities of their conscience and become more empowered to seek out positive growth and stimulation where necessary. The superego is a guiding light that gives an individual their morality. By being open to and exploring the superego, individuals are able to understand themselves better and grow in positive ways.

As with personality development, healthy exploration of the superego is about balancing and avoiding extremes at both ends of the morality spectrum.

Is the superego conscious or unconscious?

The superego is both conscious and unconscious. The superego exists to stop an individual from acting on urges and impulses they ultimately know are wrong. The superego exists on all levels of thought. The unconscious superego explains the sudden pangs of unexplainable guilt that spring up from time to time. However, the superego primarily exists within our conscious thoughts, as we are aware of them and the internal debate caused by the superego in response to those thoughts.