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The superego is one of the three agencies making up the psychic apparatus in Freud's second topography, the structural theory (1923b). It results essentially from the internalization of parental authority. From the outset, as psychoanalysis uncovered the defensive conflict that arose from a repressed unconscious (childhood sexuality), it encountered the need to posit a repressing agency, a censor associated with self-esteem. In contrast with hypnosis, which put the censor to sleep, psychoanalysis is essentially aimed at acknowledging and working out of the ego's resistances.

As early as "On Narcissism: An Introduction" (1914c), Freud already deemed the ego ideal to be autonomous. Two works of Freud's dating from the early 1920s firmly differentiated between the ego and the superego (ego ideal) and integrated this distinction into the whole set of Freud's metapsychological reworkings of the period. In Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921c), to describe the functioning of groups, Freud developed a generalized conception of identification in which individuals identified their egos by creating a common ideal, incarnated in a leader. The Ego and the Id (1923b) went on to link the superego as a mental agency to the recognized fact that the greater portion of the ego was unconscious. Within the psychic apparatus, the superego makes permanent the effects of the infant's dependence on primary objects, and it is just as insusceptible of complete integration into the ego as the id and its instinctual impulses. The term "superego" itself indicates that the superego dominates the ego; the tension between the two agencies take the form of moral anxiety.

Freud did not detach the superego from the ideal (one of its functions). The superego is responsible for transmitting the constraints that culture exercises over the individual, and for imposing the necessary and ultimately excessive sacrifices of instinct demanded by civilization. It is also the carrier of a cultural past that each subject must appropriate and master (the reference being to Goethe's Faust ) through processes of object idealization and sublimation of the instincts. The main dynamic remains the conflict-laden work of differentiation between the ego and the superego. How the superego is transmitted (it is formed in the image of the parents' own superegos), establishes itself, and develops entails in the final reckoning that the Freudian superego is an intersubjective and even intergenerational agency.

When, in Civilization and Its Discontents (1930a), Freud raised the issue of a (collective) cultural superego, he was revisiting his earlier reflections on the origins of civilization in Totem and Taboo (1912-1913a). There, evoking the myth of the primal horde, he had associated the killing of the primal father with the prohibition on incest. After investigating the genesis of guilt in Civilization and Its Discontents, he attempted, in Moses and Monotheism (1939a), to account for the strength of tradition. With the concept of the superego, Freud tackled the thorny subject of what human-kind elevates and makes sublime. Strictly opposed to any kind of spiritual approach, which the theme of the conscience readily encouraged, he focused on the concrete development and instinctual aspects of agency.

In seeking to expose the structural dimension of the split between the ego and the superego, Freud based his findings on two pathological phenomena: delusions of observation and manic-depressive psychosis. In delusions of observation, the monitoring and judging internal agency (the superego) is reprojected outward. Manic-depressive psychosis illustrates the cyclic operation of the moral conscience and the changes that occur in the relationship between the ego and the superego: in melancholic self-reproach, the superego persecutes the ego, and in manic euphoria, the ego and its ideal coincide (as in the ritual festivity of a carnival).

From the ontogenetic viewpoint, the superego is "heir to the Oedipus complex." This means that the advent of the superego prolongs the core affective relationships of childhood by rendering permanent the conditions that brought about its establishment. The identifications that constitute the superego are the bearers at once of parental prohibitions and of instinctual cathexes relating to the parents as objects, cathexes that these identifications replace according to a regressive logic in which the wish to be like dislodges the wish to have (Freud, 1933a, p. 63). Broadly speaking, the identifications of the superego owe their autonomy, their constraining role vis-à-vis the ego, to the child's crucial dependence on its objects. "At the beginning . . . what is bad is whatever causes one to be threatened with loss of love" (Freud, 1930a, p. 124). If establishing the superego through identifications has far-reaching consequences, this is because the relationship of the ego to the superego reproduces the relationship of the child to the all-powerful parents. Real anxiety related to the parents is transformed into moral anxiety arising from the tension between the ego and a superego that draws no distinction between the wish and the act. The superego first appears, therefore, as the upshot of a regressive defensive process that tends to lend permanence in mental reality to a world determined above all by parental desire and parental protection. Freud conceived of religious belief as underpinned by a projection outward of the child's superego, motivated by a nostalgia for the father. This helps explain why the task of the ego during adolescence is to escape from the authority of the superego.

In Freud's detailed metapsychological description of the genesis and development of the superego, the superego begins to form very early on, and this formation involves permanent rearrangements of identifications and changes in their very nature as they become less narcissistic and more symbolic.

There is thus a clear dividing line between a primitive realm of the superego (as described by Melanie Klein) and a distinctly postoedipal realm. The primitive realm is founded on archaic mechanisms (identification with the aggressor and the law of talion [an eye for an eye]). In the postoedipal realm of the superego, a bisexual superego "consisting of these two [paternal and maternal] identifications in some way united with each other" (1923b, p. 34) bears the mark of the subtle mental developments that for Freud are specific to the phallic phase and the "complete" Oedipus complex (love and hate for each parent, identification with both). Under this later configuration, the structuring effects of the castration complex and the integration of the fantasy of the primal scene make it possible for the superego to resolve and protect the ego from what are now incestuous wishes. Successful development of the superego is indicated by the individual's acquisitions of culture during the latency phase and by an ability of the individual to traverse the reactivation of instinctive desires that occurs in adolescence and to achieve autonomy. Progression along these lines correlates with a reduction of the superego's demands to essential social rules alone, with its gradual detachment. Such progression tends to turn the superego into a more purely symbolic agency. The profoundly paternal character of Freud's superego has been further developed by Jacques Lacan's concept of the Name of the Father. A consequence is the possibility of a more personal ego ideal. All these modifications of the superego depend on the desexualization inherent to the identification process, for desexualization allows a secondary narcissism in which the ability to idealize and sublimate buttress the cathexis of new objects and social bonds.

At the clinical level, making the superego into a mental agency was one of Freud's theoretical responses to the difficult practical problems posed by certain kinds of resistanceneeds for punishment, negative therapeutic reactions, moral masochismthat represent diverse expressions of unconscious guilt. Freud observed how the superego had a general propensity for cruelty, for a severity out of all proportion to that of the child's actual upbringing. This was a crucial insight, for it led him to recognize the endogenous, instinctual origin of cruelty and hence to form the hypothesis of the destructive death instincts.

Unconscious guilt was thus seen in essence as turning such destructiveness back against oneself. This explains the paradoxical fact that the superego is made stronger by the renunciations it imposes, and that anxiety is increased even by misdeeds never performed (as witness crimes committed out of a sense of guilt). The narcissistic desexualization involved in the process of identification, upon which the superego is founded, permits a diffusion of instincts whereby the superego tends to become the focus of a liberated death instinct (the "pure culture of the death instinct" seen in melancholia).

By contrast, the proper functioning of the postoedipal superego, which results in a dynamic of conflict between the ego and the superego, presupposes that the environment allows a balanced apportionment of love and discipline that result in a fusion of instinct. The coherent superego that results makes for a tempered guilt capable of underpinning a sense of responsibility in the subject.

Jean-Luc Donnet

See also: Activity/passivity; Agency; Alcoholism; Altruism; Antilibidinal ego/internal saboteur; Anxiety; Castration complex; Censorship; Character; Civilization (Kultur ); Cruelty; Defense; Depression; Ethics; Fusion/defusion; Graph of Desire; Guilt, unconscious sense of; Heroic identification; Humor; Id; Ideal Ego; Identification; Imago; Inhibitions, Symptoms, and Anxiety ; Latency period; Law and psychoanalysis; Libidinal development; Linking, attacks on; Melancholic depression; Oedipus complex, early; "Outline of Psychoanalysis, An"; Prohibition; Psychic apparatus; Psychic causality; Self-hatred; Self-punishment; Unconscious, the.


Amar, Nicole; Le Goues, Gérard; and Pragier, Georges (Eds.). (1995). Surmoi II: les développements post-Freudiens. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Donnet, Jean-Luc. (1995). Surmoi I: le concept Freudien et la règle fondamentale. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Freud, Sigmund. (1912-1913a). Totem and taboo. SE, 13: 1-161.

. (1914c). On narcissism: an introduction. SE, 14: 67-102.

. (1921c). Group psychology and the analysis of the ego. SE, 18: 65-143.

. (1923b). The ego and the id. SE, 19: 1-66.

. (1930a). Civilization and its discontents. SE, 21: 57-145.

. (1933a). New introductory lectures on psycho-analysis. SE, 22: 1-182.

. (1939a). Moses and monotheism: Three essays. SE, 23: 1-137.

Further Reading

Arlow, Jacob. (1982). Problems of the superego concept. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 37, 229-244.

Blum, Hans. (1985). Superego formation, adolescent transformation, and adult neurosis. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association. 33, 887-910.

Brenner, Charles. (1982). Concept of the superego: A reformulation. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 51, 501-525.

Gray, Paul. (1987). On the technique of analysis of the superego: An introduction. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 56, 130-154.

Hartmann, Heinz, and Loewenstein, Rudolph. (1962). Notes on the superego. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 17, 42-81.

Hoffman, Leon, rep. (1998). Panel: The clinical value of the superego concept. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 46, 885-896.

Loewald, Hans W. (1973). Some instinctual manifestations of superego formation. Annual of Psychoanalysis, 1, 104-116.

Milrod, David. (2002). The superego: Its formation, structure, and functioning. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 57, 131-150.

O'Shaughnessy, Edna. (1999). Relating to the superego. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 80, 861-870.

Spitz, Rene. (1958). On the genesis of superego components. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 13, 375-404.


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In psychoanalytic theory, the part of the human personality that represents a person's inner values and morals; also known as conscience.

The superego is one of three basic components of human personality , according to Sigmund Freud . The id is the most primitive, consisting of largely unconscious biological impulses. The ego uses reality and its consequences to modify the behavior being urged by the id. The superego judges actions as right or wrong based on the person's internal value system.

Freud believed that a child develops the superego by storing up the moral standards learned from experience in society and from parents and other adults. When a parent scolds a child for hitting another child, for example, the child learns that such aggression is unacceptable. Stored in that child's superego, or conscience , is that moral judgment which will be used in determining future behavior. Another component of the superego is a person's own concept of perfect behavior, which presents a second standard used to govern actions.

The complex interaction among the id, the ego, and the superego is what determines human behavior, according to Freud. A healthy balance between the more instinctual demands of the id and the moral demands of the superego, as negotiated by the ego, results in a "normal" or healthy personality.

Further Reading

Atkinson, Rita L.; Richard C. Atkinson; Edward E. Smith; and Ernest R. Hilgard. Introduction to Psychology. 9th ed. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1987.

Zimbardo, Philip G. Psychology and Life. 12th ed. Glenview, IL.: Scott, Foresman, 1988.


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su·per·e·go / ˌsoōpərˈēgō/ • n. (pl. -gos) Psychoanalysis the part of a person's mind that acts as a self-critical conscience, reflecting social standards learned from parents and teachers.Compare with ego and id.


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superego In psychoanalysis, level of personality that acts as a conscience or censor. It develops as a child internalizes the standards of behaviour defined by the rewards and punishments of parents and society. See also ego; id


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superego (soo-per-ee-goh) n. (in psychoanalysis) the part of the mind that functions as a moral conscience or judge. The superego is the result of the incorporation of parental injunctions into the child's mind.


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