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Equilibrium in Psychology

Equilibrium in Psychology







The concept of equilibrium plays an important role in diverse domains of psychology. At a basic physiological level, an organism strives to regulate drives and to maintain homeostasisthat is, physiological equilibrium. On an emotional level, people work to balance the dictates of competing desires and instincts. At a more cognitive and social level, people strive to reconcile discrepancies among different types of thought, behavior, and attitude. The existence of competing drives, conflicts, and inconsistencies leads to the need to restore equilibrium when a system is out of balance.

Because of the diversity of meanings of equilibrium, psychologists use the term in ways and in contexts that may vary substantially. For instance, the regulatory drives associated with hunger and thirst bear little resemblance to the experience of holding two mutually inconsistent attitudes that must be reconciled. The glue that binds them is the need to maintain a balance. It is this basic need that gives the construct of equilibrium its central role in explaining human and nonhuman behavior at multiple levels.


Beginning with Sigmund Freuds psychodynamic theory, and continuing with that theorys intellectual descendants, equilibrium has played a central role in descriptions of the emotional landscape. At a basic level, Freud postulated that the three components that underlie personal-itythe id, ego, and superegoexist in dynamic tension, requiring a constant attempt to achieve or retain equilibrium.

The id reflects an unconscious set of instinctive drives solely oriented toward self-gratification. When a need is unmet, the individual is driven to reduce the tension it causes. According to Freud, the id has no contact with reality; its primary process is to form merely an image of the object that will satisfy its drive. At some point, the person needs a reality-based reduction of the drive, not simply an image. The ego was seen to develop from the id to provide an actual reality-based drive-reduction, the so-called secondary process. Freud theorized that this id-ego combination dominates a persons behavior until social awareness leads to emergence of the superego, which recognizes that some behaviors are inappropriate. At that point, the superego needs to be factored into the equation for equilibrium.

The individual must develop equilibrium by maintaining a balance between the need to reduce drives and the need to recognize the realities of behavior within a societal or familial context. When people achieve equilibrium, the forces of the id, ego, and superego are in balance. With disequilibrium, anxiety arises. With realistic anxiety, the rationality of the ego can help resolve the anxiety. With neurotic or moral anxiety, however, the tension caused by the imbalance can lead to the emergence of defense mechanisms that help relieve the anxiety. Freud also speculated that dreaming can help a person resolve anxieties caused by tension between id, ego, and superego.

Subsequent psychodynamic theorists (e.g., Loevinger 1976) have responded to some of the limitations of Freuds theory by shifting the emphasis from id to ego. The goal, however, remains largely the same: to characterize the way people balance basic desires and realities as they adjust to the world around them. Another shift in psychodynamic theories moved from largely internal sources of potential disequilibrium to social sources (Adler 1964; Erikson 1974).

A further psychodynamic theory that features some overlap with Freudian ideas is Carl Jungs analytical psychology. It specifies that one of two attitudes, introversion or extraversion, dominates a person. Two additional sets of dichotomies are important as well: thinking versus feelingboth rational processesand sensing versus intuiting, which are not rational. People are predisposed, according to the theory, toward one element of each dichotomous pair. The commonly used, but controversial, Myers-Briggs Type Inventory is based on Jungs theory.

The details of these psychodynamic theories differ, sometimes greatly, but each theory, at its base, postulates that people must resolve a series of conflicts as they progress through life. Most of the theories posit that normal sexual or social development requires that people successfully navigate through stages of development, bringing their underlying instincts and motivations into equilibrium.


The humanistic psychologists took a very different approach to understanding people, their motivations, and their behaviors. Whereas the psychodynamic theories rely greatly on unconscious drives and instincts and have a negative cast (i.e., people are always working to resolve crises in order to restore equilibrium), the humanists suggest that people are aware of their motives and are predisposed to full functioning or self-actualization, and that problems arise only when the normal state of equilibrium is breached.

Carl Rogers (1961) speculated that if people are accepted unconditionally, they will develop positive self-regard. On the other hand, if acceptance by oneself or by others is dependent on particular behaviors, people will have difficulty accepting themselves unconditionally. Consequently, their path to self-actualization will be interrupted. According to this framework, disequilibrium occurs when there is a mismatch between peoples views of their real self and their ideal self. Such a mismatch prevents self-actualization.

Therapies to remedy such disequilibrium focus on ones own insight into the problem. Rogerss client-centered therapy relies on the therapists acceptance of and empathy with the clients, who are responsible for resolving their problems. Another humanistic approach, Gestalt therapy, also relies on insight, but the therapist is more directive and may confront the client in order to resolve important issues, so the client can regain equilibrium.


The developmental theory of Jean Piaget relies on the concept of equilibrium in that it maintains that as children become more cognitively sophisticated, they recognize the inconsistency between what they already know and new information they encounter.

Piaget developed the notion of equilibration, which relates to a persons attempt to balance psychological schemas with the new information that he or she processes. During the process of equilibration, children assimilate new information and new ways of thinking, and then accommodate that new information by changing their psychological schema.

An alternate developmental viewpoint conceived by Lev Vygotsky (1978) postulates that the source of disequilibrium is external. In this view, the disequilibrium that moves children from one stage of development to another is based on social interaction. Vygotsky suggested that differences across cultures affect what children learn and how they learn it. That is, a teacher or parent can elevate childrens cognitive complexity beyond the level the children have attained on their own by appropriate help during a learning session. In contrast, Piagetian theories of how children move to new levels of cognitive sophistication are focused on internal processes.

Outside the realm of developmental psychology, social and cognitive psychologists have described the role of equilibrium in social interaction. For instance, Fritz Heider speculated that people embrace new information that is consistent with what they already know and reject incompatible information because of the need to retain balanced cognitive schemas. For example, research has shown that when people engage in a behavior that is inconsistent with a stated attitude, they experience what is known as cognitive dissonance and will often change the attitude to be consistent with the behavior. There are, however, circumstances in which people are able to maintain inconsistent attitudes and behaviors.


The body regulates itself in many dimensions simultaneously, each achieving its own balance. Such regulation involves drives such as hunger, thirst, sex, sleep, and others. An early behavioral psychologist, Clark Hull, developed a drive theory that used regulatory mechanisms to predict and explain the emergence of behavior.

According to Hull, an organism rests when in a state of equilibrium. When a drive, like hunger or thirst, develops, the organism is motivated to alleviate this disequilibrium by engaging in appropriate behavior regarding that drive. The act of eating to reduce hunger or drinking to reduce thirst is known as drive-satisfying behavior. Hull developed a complex mathematical theory to characterize the emergence of behavior. The theoretical shortcomings of his concepts led to modifications of the model, however. Contemporary psychologists now employ theories based on the concept of optimum-level. In this framework, the body is viewed as having an optimal level of arousal that differs from one person or animal to another and that differs in varied settings. When arousal is either too high or too low for comfort, the organism engages in behaviors to return the arousal level to the optimal level.


Animals are quite proficient at maintaining appropriate posture, or equilibrium, due to structures in the inner ear that very rapidly provide information to the eyes and to the muscles that regulate balance. The structures responsible for appropriate posture include the three semicircular canals in the inner ear that provide feedback regarding rotational movement of the head and two otolith organs that register linear movement. The canals contain fluids that move when the head moves, creating neural signals about the movement. The otoliths contain calcium carbonate crystals that stimulate neurons when an organism moves.

These five structures send information to the muscles, allowing maintenance of balance even during complex movement. When the structures send information to the eyes, accurate visual tracking of the environment during even rapid head movements is made possible.

SEE ALSO Child Development; Chomsky, Noam; Cognitive Dissonance; Developmental Psychology; Festinger, Leon; Freud, Sigmund; Gestalt Psychology; Hull, Clark; Jung, Carl; Neuroscience; Piaget, Jean; Psychology; Self-Actualization; Self-Esteem; Social Statics


Adler, Alfred. [1938] 1964. Social Interest: A Challenge to Mankind. New York: Capricorn Books.

Erikson, Erik H. 1974. Dimensions of a New Identity. New York: Norton.

Loevinger, Jane. 1976. Ego Development: Conceptions and Theories. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Rogers, Carl R. 1961. On Becoming a Person: A Therapists View of Psychotherapy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Vygotsky, L. S. 1978. Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes, eds. Michael Cole et al. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bernard C. Beins

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