What are Thanatos powers

Freud's theory

Two properties of Sigmund Freud's theory make it difficult to summarize in this context:
First, it is very extensive. You can hardly leave out parts without making other parts incomprehensible. Everything is more or less interrelated.
And second, she is very complex. You can also say "abstract" or "counterintuitive". It explains human behavior in terms that have very little to do with our everyday experience. Of course, that's not a bad thing. Similarly, behaviorism also tried to find its own language to explain human behavior that was as far away as possible from the overpowering everyday language. So we shall see in the case of Hull's theory (in the next section) that it is hardly less extensive than Freud's - if at least not as complex.

So how do we go about it? To get a first impression, let's look at an attempt at structuring the psychoanalytic theory by D. Rapaport. He expresses them on the basis of eight basic assumptions (axioms):

1. The object of psychoanalysis is behavior.
It is characterized by the assumption of a psychological determination of all behavior, i.e. all behavior is motivated, nothing happens by chance. For this determinism Freud needs the assumption of unconscious processes (see axiom 5).
2. Every behavior is indivisible, that is, it is determined several times, not just the behavior of an instance.
3. No behavior is isolated. All behavior is part of the indivisible personality.
4. All behavior is part of a genetic series.
5. The decisive determinants of behavior are unconscious.
6. All behavior is ultimately determined by instincts.
7. All behavior dissipates soul energy and is regulated by soul energy.
8. All behavior has structural determinants and is determined by conflicts.

So much for a first overview, which of course cannot lead to a deeper understanding. So let's start somewhere. Best of all with the drives (cf. Axiom 6), because it is these that are of particular interest for motivational psychology. (We will also strip the axioms 1, 2, 5, 7 and 8.)

Dynamic aspect: drive conception

First, what are instincts?
Instincts are forces that originate in one physical instinct source (which is not the subject of the analysis) and represent themselves psychically, e.g. through an impulse ("Urge").
They seek their destination in the satisfaction, i.e. the suspension of the stimulus state at the instinct source. For this they are dependent on an object through which they can achieve their goal. This Instinctual object is relatively variable, i.e. interchangeable; it changes in the course of ontogenetic development. (On the other hand, an instinct is fixed on an object.) The objects are charged with psychic energy (cf. Axiom 7), which is called "cathexis". For example, Freud called the energy of the sex drive "libido".

Here again Determinants of the instinct:
- Source: is of a somatic nature, can only be further specified through biology
- Urge: desire with which the instinctual action takes place; Hunger is e.g. the urge to eat
- Object: is that on which the instinctual action takes place; it is the most variable thing about the drive
- Goal: is the action that the instinct urges (i.e. the satisfaction of the stimulus state at the source)
Time sequence: Source - urge - object (environment) - goal / discharge

Have instincts preservative characterSo they keep coming back. This cyclical character expresses itself behaviorally in the "repetition compulsion". The organism strives to end the "disturbing" drive and return to the state of equilibrium ("homeostasis").

Second: what drives are there?
Freud changed his model of what instincts are found in humans very often. This uncertainty can mainly be explained by the fact that he does not set up his models on an empirical basis, but according to their usefulness for explaining clinical, and later also social phenomena. Because he regards the instinctual sources as physical, empirical evidence could only have been expected from biology.
Despite all the changes, Freud's instinctual model (which we can understand in terms of motivational psychology as a "motive classification") always remained dualistic, i.e. there are always two Drives facing each other. The following overview shows the two most important engine models in their historical order.

1. Concept:Sex driveSelf-preservation instinct 
2. Concept:Life instinct (eros)Death instinct (thanatos)

In the beginning Freud attributed a lot to the "sexual instinct", whereby he took the concept of sexuality very broadly, so that it also included, for example, friendly behavior and "love". The instinct for self-preservation, on the other hand, manifests itself in behaviors such as eating and seeking protection.
The other conception (life instinct vs. death instinct) cannot be explained without further elaboration. From the table, however, it becomes clear that it is conceptually superior to the previous one: the instinct for life includes the instinct for sexual and self-preservation.

The alienation that Freud attributed many behaviors to sexual motivations was enormous in his day and continues to this day. It is undisputed that Freud was the first to research that even small children already have sexuality. The transfer to adults is bold, of course, but not completely absurd either.
In order to understand the Freudian concept of instinct, it is also important that instincts rarely appear alone, but almost always mixed, i.e. they partially neutralize each other. Only in psychoses and perversions, according to Freud, do instincts appear "pure" and can develop their full force.

The topical models

How does Freud imagine the psyche, the personality of a person? Here we have to distinguish between two (historically one after the other) conceptions, two so-called "topical models". Both divide the psyche into three Parts, but in different parts:

First topical model:
three systems
Second topical model:
three instances
- System unconscious (Ubw)
- System preconscious (Vbw)
- System conscious (Bw)
- It
- i
- About me

Ubw is that part of the psychic apparatus whose contents ("representations") are unconscious. Unconscious (in this narrower sense) means that they do not come into consciousness despite their great intensity and importance. Vbw also includes ideas that the person is not aware of, but for a different reason: because they are too insignificant at the given point in time. But they are - in contrast to the unconscious ideas - capable of consciousness, i.e. they can later reach the Bw. Bw is to be equated with "consciousness"; so it includes conscious ideas.

According to Freud, psychoanalysis is primarily concerned with unconscious psychic processes, also because the conscious cannot be explained deterministically (see axiom 1). Science thus becomes theoretically possible, but methodologically everything becomes all the more difficult ...

According to this point of view, consciousness receives - as part of Vbw - only the role of a sensory organ for the perception of psychic processes. Ubw and Vbw, on the other hand, are the really important systems. The former works according to the pleasure principle, the latter according to the reality principle. A preconscious idea is linked to words, an unconscious one is not. The link with language also represents the actually defining distinction between the two systems, which is certainly still interesting from today's point of view.

displacement is a process on the border of the two systems. A preconscious thought falls victim to censorship. The presentation of the matter is replaced by the corresponding word presentation and the translation into words is refused.
The repression is an inferred process derived from the observation of the resistanceit which - e.g. in therapy - opposes the becoming conscious of the repressed. It is therefore assumed that the same forces which are now opposed to the re-consciousness earlier caused the repression.
The repressed thoughts try to force themselves against the resistance of the consciousness as distorted "descendants": in neurotic symptoms, manifest dream content or also mistakes like the "Freudian slip of the tongue".
This associative connection between the repressed and the symptom makes it easier to explore the Ubw, e.g. in therapy.

The second topical model is certainly the better known. It is very concise, but less clearly defined. Here are the three "instances" and their characteristics in brief:
- It: psychic representation of the instincts, functions according to the pleasure principle (hedonistic); strives for immediate instinctual satisfaction
- I: Agree on the interests of the id, superego and the outside world; Reality principle ("calculating", checks whether there is an opportunity for instinctual satisfaction)
- Super-ego: includes conscience (moral precepts) as well as the "ego ideal" (ideal strivings); Morality principle (checks whether something is good or bad and criticizes)

Interplay between id and me: The ego has to watch the outside world and record memories. If the id announces a need, the ego checks the possibility of a need satisfaction by means of thinking (on the basis of the memories) and then possibly stimulates the corresponding action. (If necessary, it has to disguise the precepts of the id with preconscious rationalizations.) This reality principle promises more security and greater success in dealing with the environment.

Interplay of superego and ego: The super-ego also makes demands on the ego without taking reality into account by forcing the ego to adopt norms of thought and behavior. What is the symptom (compromise) in a conflict with the id is a feeling of inferiority and a sense of guilt in a conflict with the superego.

The ego is thus in a conflict of three clients: id, super-ego and outside world. The ego must try to take into account all interests, to maintain harmony.
The I is - as it has often been expressed metaphorically - "not the master of my own house". But it can meet the requirements more or less well. Children are usually not able to do this very well, but learn to do so as they develop. In psychoanalytic therapy, too, the focus is on the patient learning to better assert himself against unconscious instinctual desires and captivating moral ideas, and not to allow himself to be dominated by them.

Defense Mechanisms

How does the ego defend itself against the constant desires of the id? By developing various defense mechanisms. We have already explained the most important and well-known in the context of the first topical model: displacement.

- displacement: Complete exclusion of instinctual impulses from consciousness, "active forgetting". Since the repressed continues to be occupied with energy in the unconscious, the ego must continue to expend energy for repression (counter-cathexis). So repression fails when the instinctual cathexis increases (e.g. during puberty or in "seductive situations") or the countercathexis decreases (e.g. under alcohol).
- projection: The own instinctual impulse is ascribed to another person. The result can be prejudice or paranoia. The ego's ability to test reality is diminished.
- Turn against the self: An aggressive impulse is turned against oneself (to protect oneself from the consequences). So you identify with the object. This consequence can be the revenge of the other in aggression, in a marital dispute the deprivation of love of the partner. In the latter case, the innocent partner would plead guilty ...
- Regression: A conflict between the ego and id is resolved by returning to coping methods from earlier phases.
- Denial: An unwanted part of reality is denied with the help of a wish-fulfilling fantasy. Denial is thus the counterpart to repression.
- Intellectualization: Affects (emotions) are repulsed or denied.

Experimental "test"

As mentioned briefly in the last section, many psychologists have turned up their noses at Freud's unconventional methodology. Nevertheless, many of Freud's theses radiated a great fascination for posterity. The defense mechanisms are of particular interest to cognitive psychology - they describe pretty much what we now call "cognitive distortion" or something similar.
As will soon become clear, the experimental tests of the cognitive psychologists have only one basic idea in common with Freud's theses. As foreign as Freud's methods are to the cognitive psychologists, Freud would certainly have reacted with just as great rejection to the experiments, one of which we shall now describe as an example.

For example, in a study by Lazarus, Opton, Nomikos and Rankin from 1965, the test subjects were shown a film about accidents in the workplace. While the visual material was the same for all participants, the previous announcement of the film was varied.
The film was announced to some of the test subjects as what it - realistically - actually was: a documentation of terrible accidents that cause discomfort.
In the case of a second group of test persons, the importance of the representation was previously downplayed by pointing out that the film was only posed and that the accident victims were only actors. This was intended to encourage the subjects to deny it.
A third group was recommended to consider the events presented as objectively and factually as possible.An intellectualization was suggested to them.

How well did you manage to ward off the unpleasant images? This was measured by measuring skin conductivity. This is a common physiological measure of affective arousal (which, according to Freud, should be avoided by defense mechanisms). Indeed, it was found that the two groups that had been induced to defend themselves showed less skin resistance than the other group.
This result therefore speaks in favor of the effectiveness of the two defense mechanisms examined - at least that's how the authors interpret it. Because what was examined here was not so much whether people use defense mechanisms, but rather whether they allow themselves to be tempted to use defense mechanisms. While these are not the same, they are not so different that the study could be dismissed as worthless. Especially since many other studies came to similar results.


One cannot learn to understand psychoanalysis in one day. Even less on a html page. Because it is no longer of great importance for motivational psychology, we have dispensed with a more detailed description. The fact that not everything could be understood in this way should not worry the reader!
Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to take a closer look at psychoanalysis. The triumphal march of psychoanalysis in the middle of the century was as exaggerated as its condemnation from the universities today. So if you want to know more about them, we recommend the compact introductory booklet "Freud's Psychoanalysis" by Thomas Köhler, for example.

It continues with Hull's theory ...