Reality Testing

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"Reality testing" is defined as the process through which the psyche gauges the difference between the internal and external worlds. Freud first defined this process as founded on perception and motility, but as he progressively elaborated his theory of the ego, reality testing became one of the functions of the ego.

Freud's most complete description of this concept occurs in "A Metapsychological Supplement to the Theory of Dreams" (1916-1917f [1915]), where it appears in tandem with another concept, the "reality-indicator," which makes it possible for the psyche to determine whether the experience it is undergoing is present or is the recall of a previous one. The need for both of these concepts in psychoanalysis stems from the psyche's proclivity to hallucinate. If a previous experience is hallucinated, meaning made present to perception by the action of intense instinctual cathexis, this may fog up the ego's capacities to differentiate between past and present, internal and external, and thus require it to refer to the intensity of the cathexis to differentiate between actual perception and hallucination.

In Freud's inaugural texts, the ego's capacity to make and change cathexes devolves upon reality testing. In the texts that followed, this capacity was assumed by perception, which conveys external reality inward (1911b), then motility, which enables flight from extreme sources of excitation and thereby enables the ego to differentiate the excitation from internal sources (1916-1917f).

However, all of these processes assume means that cannot be used in the psychoanalytic session, where motility and perception are in large part suspended. Freud's successors, Winnicott in particular, have therefore emphasized another process that contributes to distinguishing the realm of fantasy and differentiating internal and external realities. This process is based on the fact that external reality resists fantasized destruction and is not destroyed by it. Reality, or rather externality, can thus be discovered by its capacities to resist the subject's destructiveness. This confers upon the analysis of negative transference a preponderant role in treatment.

RenÉ Roussillon

See also: Act, passage to the; Anxiety; Danger; Dementia; Depressive position; Experience of satisfaction; Group phenomenon; Idea/representation; Illusion; Internal/external reality; Isakower phenomenon; Mythology and psychoanalysis; Outline of Psycho-Analysis, An ; Psychoanalytic nosography; Splitting of the ego; Truth; Wish, hallucinatory satisfaction of a; Wish/yearning.


Freud, Sigmund. (1911b). Formulations on the two principles of mental functioning. SE, 12: 213-226.

. (1916-1917f [1915]). A metapsychological supplement to the theory of dreams. SE, 14: 217-235.

Further Reading

Abend, Sander. (1982). Reality testing as a clinical concept. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 51, 218-238.

Arlow, Jacob. (1969). Fantasy, memory, and reality testing. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 38, 28-51.