What is the id? And why is it called the ‘id’? To answer these key questions, it’s necessary to think about how the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), thought of the mind. Freud believed that the mind or ‘psyche’ was composed of several different elements: an ego (which we might think of as the conscious self), the id (which is the primitive part of our minds governed by pure desires and drives), and the superego (which is a bit like our inner police officer, or conscience, telling us when something is inadvisable or immoral). The id, then, is the primitive part of our brains which is out for itself – out to attain pleasure in any way it can, whatever the consequences.
When we’re born, our minds are all id, 100%. This makes sense: the most important thing for a newborn baby is that all its essential needs – food, protection, attention – are met, and so the id greedily and selfishly makes sure this happens. The baby cries until it gets what it wants. Freud called this the ‘pleasure principle’: the id’s main – indeed, only – aim is to ensure that it is granted the pleasure it seeks. If it needs changing, or wants food, it will cry to get attention at all costs.
In summary, then, the id might be described as the impulsive part of the psyche. It is driven not by reason or by morals, but by a desire to get our basic needs and desires and passions fulfilled at any cost. It doesn’t think of consequences. The id can’t ‘think’ at all.
Although he only fully outlined the nature of the id in his 1923 work The Ego and the Id, Freud saw the id as related to what he had called the pleasure principle, described in his 1920 book Beyond the Pleasure Principle. The pleasure principle states that any desire or wish should be satisfied no matter what the later consequences of that might be. The pleasure principle is the id’s guiding ‘philosophy’. If you want to eat three chocolate bars in one sitting, the id will tell you that’s fine: the pleasure principle says you should do so. Of course, if the id keeps telling you to stuff your face with chocolate bars every day for a year, there will be consequences, notably on your beltline and in your cholesterol reading.
Of course, the id would quickly get you arrested, or killed, or in trouble with your friends, if you went about acting on your basest and more primitive impulses all the time. So as babies develop an awareness of their place in the external world, the ego begins to develop, and the ego is there to check the id’s wildest impulses and ensure that we act in a way that is best-suited to our continued well-being and survival. If the id is telling us to eat three chocolate bars because it’ll feel good, the ego might step in and compromise, ‘How about eating one now and then you’ll have the other two to eat tomorrow instead? Or how about having one chocolate bar and an apple?’ The ego is thus a sort of go-between, with the selfish and impulsive id on one side and the outside world on the other. Although the id is never fully suppressed, in a normal functioning person its wildest instincts are kept at bay.
In answer to the question, ‘what is the id?’ we might bear in mind Freud’s own analogy: that of a horse and its rider. The ego is the man riding the horse, which represents the id. He has to keep the horse in check to ensure it doesn’t suddenly decide to gallop into danger, causing harm to both of them.