Introducing the Basics
What was Freud’s theory of the instincts?
Freud believed in two primary drives or motivations in life: libido and aggression. Libido, defined as sexuality although more accurately thought of as broad sensual pleasure, was his primary focus. He added the death instinct, Thanatos, after living through the carnage of World War I. In later years, Thanatos was frequently interpreted as the aggressive drive. Freud asserted that an instinct functions like an electrical charge that needs to be expressed through behavior.
However, he felt society forbids the free expression of sexuality and aggression. Psychopathology, or what he termed neurosis, involves the conflict between our instinctual drives and our need to inhibit them. Because the instinct still presses for expression, much like water rushing downhill, it will be displaced into another channel of expression, resulting in a symptom, such as an obsession, compulsion, or a hysterical complaint (a physical symptom without any true physical cause). His fluid-like conception of the instincts was later referred to as the hydraulic model.
While this theory may appear odd from today’s point of view, it is easy to see that he was attempting to fit his observations of his patients’ behavior into the scientific models of his day.