After reading this article you will learn about the Freud’s theory of basic urges in humans.
Introduction to Basic Urges:
Freud (1927) tried to explain human behaviour through conflicting and opposing forces. There are forces which keep us alive and there are also tendencies which lead us to death. These are otherwise known as life instinct and death instinct.
The various Freudian concepts and theories have been derived from the treatment of patients. Freud was basically a biologist and obviously he was interested in the study of biologically conditioned instincts and urges. The Freudian concept of instinct or drive is popularly known as urges.
During the course of free analysis a patient stops at intervals, due to the operation of unconscious resistance. This concept of resistance gave rise to the concept of the theory of basic urges. This is one of the primary concepts on which many other concepts of psychopathology are built.
While analysing his patients Freud found that man has acquired certain innate and unlearnt urges. These desires and urges of human beings can be classified into some basic urges which are the desires of the id. These are full of basic psychic urges which are innate and unlearnt.
The activities of an individual at a particular moment are determined by these urges. An individual behaves or reacts because of the motivating force coming from these urges. These basic urges according to Freud though are modified or changed by the experiences during the first five years of life, they remain biologically determined.
According to Brown (1940) “The force and direction of the urge are modified by experience, but in their simplest form they are a part of the hereditary constitution.” In course of Psychoanalysis Freud (1920) came to know of the presence of two basic urges or instincts. He revised his previous view on instincts.
He wrote about the revision as follows:
“After long doubts and vacillations we have decided to assume the existence of only two basic instincts, Eros and the destructive instinct……… The aim of the first of these basic instincts is to establish even greater unities and to preserve them, thus in short to bind together, the aim of the second on the contrary is to undo connections and to destroy things.
We may suppose that the final aim of the destruction instinct is to reduce living things in an organic stage. For this reason also we call it death instinct.
The Instinct of Eros — Life Instinct:
It is popularly known as the life instinct or love instinct or sex. It is also called the pleasure principle. The energy of the life instinct which finds its outlet in bringing people into close physical contact is called the libido. Libido means the energy of sex motive or the urge of life. It is not the life instinct itself, but only a part of the life instinct. Life instinct is the source which goads one to develop the need for self preservation.
It is the instinct which motivates one to preserve itself. Otherwise known as the instinct of Eros, it impels us to do whatever possible to preserve ourselves in the society. The sexual life is also derived from the instinct of Eros.
Freud used sex in a very broad sense. By sexual life Freud not only meant normal adult hetero sexual relationship but all the behaviour between human beings in which they come in close physical contact. The instincts for self and for race preservation come under life instinct.
It helps us to live and exist in this world. It also helps in self preservation and maintenance of its race. Life instinct is the psychological source of all creative and intellectual activities.
Brown (1940) holds that physiologically the life instinct may be thought of as the fundamental tendency to maintain the individual organism and help it to grow. Psychologically it leads to the sexual impulses and the preservative impulses, which include besides food taking, all the activities which we perform to preserve our bodies from the physical environment such as building houses and making clothes.
It also is the psychological source of all creative intellectual activity. Before 1920 Freud thought that Libido was same as sex and sex was the only principle of life. But after 1910 Freud discovered death instinct in addition to life instinct.
The Instinct of Thantos:
It is otherwise known as the death instinct or the instinct of aggression. As remarked by Brown “Freud discovered that human being were not only basically constructive, preservative or motivated by the life instinct but that under some circumstances man hated as well as loved, destroyed as well as constructed, tore down as well as built up.”
The instinct of aggression is expressed in many overt behaviours. When aggression is turned inside it is known as covert aggression. For example, cases of suicide, when aggression is directed to external situations and persons it is called overt aggression like murder.
The instinct of aggression was not much developed by Freud in the beginning. But later on, he and his students worked on it and attempted to explain it in detail.
In course of his treatment of mental patients Freud noticed that love and hatred as two opposite forces go side by side. An individual who loved someone and wanted to make him happy also equally hated him and wished to destroy him. There are plenty of examples in our everyday life supporting the above theory.
Brown (1940) views that physiologically the death instinct represents the force which tends to destroy organic life and to lead organic matter back to the inorganic state. Psychologically, the death instinct gives rise to hostile and aggressive behaviour, to aggressive sexual activity, to self and race destruction.
Thus, love and hatred, pleasure and pain, life and death instincts go side by side. The death instinct is also expressed in destructive and aggressive intellectual activity such as criticism, satire and taunts.
According to Freud when we analyse the desire for love, we find also some desire for aggression. Thus, a best loved friend becomes the bitterest enemy when both fall out. In our attitude towards every stimulus, thus, there is the desire for love as well as aggression.
The instinct theory of Freud (1927) is said to be the starting point, but not the corner stone of psychoanalysis. Aggression develops as a reaction to frustration of basic urges experienced during early childhood period.
According to Alexander, “Fear of the consequences of losing love because of jealousy gives rise to aggression. No matter whether love and hate are instinctual or early acquired, they are always with us. The facts of love and hate are psychological data independent of the theory.”
The two instincts are not mutually opposed to each other. Behaviour originated by life instinct may have strong components of death instinct and behaviour mainly motivated by death instinct may have strong components of life instinct.
Biologists object to the death instinct advanced by Freud. They argue that life instinct motivates an organism to live and to do whatever is possible for the sake of living. It is due to this that we are organisms.
If we wish death then how could we be called organisms? Some of the psychologists also go against the aggressive instinct advanced by Freud. They say that the death instinct is a part of life instinct and hence it is not justified to introduce it as a separate instinct.
Life instinct and death instinct are not independent or opposed forces. Death instinct has some components of life instinct and life instinct has some components of death instinct. These instincts are present in one and same thing and so we have two different attitudes towards the same organism at different times. This is called ambivalent attitude. All our attitudes towards anything are ambivalent in nature.
Brown (1940) views that through the neutralization of constructive urges by destructive ones we are able to exist in this world. Death occurs when the life instinct is not able to neutralize the death instinct. To explain these two opposing forces, he took in to consideration the love hate principle which always go together. No personal relation or human relation is free from opposition.
One cannot love a person unless he has some hatred for him. If the love is in the foreground, the hatred is in the underground. So one can neither love nor hate a person cent per cent. Sometimes one dominates the other and vice versa.
The intermixture of the two instincts thus leads to the principle of ambivalence, which represents the tendency of loving and hating person alternatively. Without having some feeling of dissatisfaction one cannot love another. That is why we find that the best loved couples also quarrel and show hatred and aggressive behaviour towards each other.
Even in the process of love making a tinge of aggressiveness and inflicting pain is apparent. Thus, a love which is so pleasurable is also painful. The aggressive urges are generally found in erotic behaviour. Sadistic murders are said to be perversions of erotic tendency.
It is held by Brown that ambivalence is a phenomenon found not only in direct personal interrelation but also in most social attitudes. This principle of love and hatred is therefore just like a pendulum. In this principle also some are less loved and some are less hated. The extreme form of love and hatred has its danger of the pendulum swings. In symptoms of personal neuroses ambivalence is mostly marked.
This ambivalence tendency or basic urges of love and hatred according to Freud fuse and blend and sometimes diffuse. The entire life of a human organism is a conflict or a compromise between love and hatred, life and death, pleasure and pain.
To explain the cause of death through the principles of life and death instinct, Freud has viewed that human personality is a function of the struggle between the forces of love and hate.
Life continues while the life or love instinct overcomes or predominates the death instinct. When the life instinct becomes weak and is net able to neutralize the death instinct, death occurs. The constructive and destructive behaviours of personality are the outcome of life and death instincts respectively.
That is why, in an individual both these instincts are found and one of these instincts plays a predominant role and the other a successive role depending upon the situation in question.
Freud holds that life and death instincts are primary instincts and all other instincts are derived from there. In all our desires, we find a fusion of these two instincts which are contradictory and opposed to each other. They enter into a mental conflict because of lack of harmony between them.
One desire obstructs the fulfilment of the other. If the individual cannot decide which one of the desire should be satisfied, personality tends towards disorganization and instability. When such a state of personality continues for a longer period, the individual becomes maladjusted and hence abnormal.
A normal personality is able to decide which one of the desires should be fulfilled and which one should not be. As long as one is able to maintain a balance between the life and death instinct, he is normal. Lack of harmony and balance between these two desires lead to dis-organised and abnormal personality.
Activity-Passivity, Pleasure-Pain and Reality Principles:
In addition to life and death instincts, which are primary in nature and determine in a major way the reactions and patterns of adjustment of an individual, there are other instincts and bipolar tendencies.
Some of them are discussed below:
Brown (1940) states that the polarity between activity and passivity is derived from the role the individual plays in the relationship. Activity is usually found in muscularity and passivity in feminity.
(b) Musculanity and feminity:
According to Freudian theory, every individual has both musculine and feminine tendencies. Thus, every man has some feminine tendency and every woman has some masculine tendency. Hence the difference between activity and passivity is also fused in the personality.
Pleasure and Reality Principle:
By pleasure and reality principle, Freud tried to explain the two opposing forces of human mind. He explained some motives and behaviour in terms of pleasure principle and some activities in terms of reality principles. The id, the unconscious motives and the instinctive tendencies are purely guided by the pleasure principle.
The individual always wants to derive pleasure from the environment and his activity is directed towards getting pleasure. On the contrary, the reality principle is the principle of the ego, the self. Our conscious self is engaged with the external world and reality activities.
But the activities directed to get pleasure are modified by the reality principle as it is not always possible to fulfil all desires leading to pleasure because of social restrictions.
This leads to conflict between pleasure and reality principles and certain activities directed to get pleasure are inhibited, checked and restricted by the reality principle. Thus; develops the antithesis between the pleasure and reality principle. When the two principles are in conflict the harmony between the id and ego breaks down.
In the beginning though the infant is mainly guided by pleasure principles, gradually with the growth of personality the child learns to give up many of his activities directed to get pleasure and learns to develop sense of reality after the frustration he faces in the path of life.
The reality principle grows gradually with the growth of the ego. The ego slowly but steadily realizes that all pleasures cannot be obtained and one has to maintain a balance between the pleasure-reality principle by sacrificing the source of desires leading to achieve pleasure.
It is a reaction based on the antithesis between the life and death urges. The pleasure-pain principle is directly related with the pleasure principle. The Freudian theory holds one of the chief motivating factors in all activities, i.e., the seeking of pleasure and avoidance of pain.
Brown (1940) remarks “the love hate polarity is essentially the same as the polarity between the aggressive and erotic urges and belongs to the general problem of ambivalence”.
The instinct of Eros and Thantos, the love and hate principle of Freud emphasised the fact that human nature is a bundle of contradictory principles. These thoughts and theories of Freud disturbed the people of the current century.
Thus according to Wolman (1979) “Barely has any theory been exposed to so much bitter and sometimes, unfair criticism as has psychoanalysis. For the neglect of organic factors, Freud was criticized in the medical circles. Academic psychologists criticized him for being unscientific, philosophers for being ethical and degrading the dignity of man.”