The Reality Principle: Just Grow Up!

In the world of psychology and psychoanalysis the reality principle is the equivalent to the phrase “Oh, grow up!” The reality principle is concerned with societal demands placed on the individual that interfere with the mechanism known as the pleasure principle. The reality principle places expectations upon a person to act accordingly with societal conventions and this can mean everything from not going around sexually assaulting people at will to not showing up at work in your swimsuit. It is the mechanism by which people learn to behave and discipline themselves.

According to basic psychoanalytic theory, babies acquire the pleasure principle first. Infants learn the value of instant gratification of having their instinctual basic needs met immediately. It takes a rather long time for most children to understand that instant gratification doesn’t usually exist once they begin to walk and talk. As a baby all one need do is cry and whatever problem is at hand is usually solved, from hunger to discomfort after voiding the bladder or bowels. As children grow this pleasure principle is still at work; if they see a toy they want they ask their parents to buy it for them and fully expect to be told yes. For some it takes longer; if they see an iPod they want they steal it. The reality principle is all about forcing maturation by revealing the impact of exterior needs, expectations and desires placed upon the individual.

It is exactly this understanding and acceptance that certain pleasures must be postponed or even suppressed entirely that is the very foundation of maturation.

Of course, there are several different methodologies at play in this complex evolution of maturation. One way that the reality principle can work is through exhibition. In other words, as we grow up we witness more and more the idea that sacrifice of instant gratification must often be made. As our critical awareness deepens we then see that this sacrifice may be made for different reasons. One person may postpone immediate gratification for a more expansive kind of gratification at a later date; as when you make the decision not to go on vacation because you’re saving money to buy a house. Others may postpone immediate pleasure in order to avoid later pain.

Another methodology by which people learn the reality principle is through punishment. If a child continues to give in to the pleasure principle by doing something destructive or just offensive to the parent, he may continue to be spanked or punished in some other way. Gradually, he will come to learn that the external demands of his parents impact his ability to achieve gratification and he will adapt, meaning he either no longer commits the offense, or he does it in hiding. And, of course, that is where the reality principle really impacts the individual on a personal level. Once we come to understand the vital important of acting in accordance with societal conventions and guidelines for ethical and moral behavior, there is always a process of adaptation. Some, of course, never fully recognize the reality principle and continue to publicly exhibit deviant behavior their entire lives.

The reality principle is obviously a quite necessary component for civilization; without it chaos and anarchy would prevail. But it is important to understand that the reality principle is not intended as an alternative to the pleasure principle. Rather, they are intertwined to provide a delicate balance between what we want and what others want from us.