Icebergs And Stages: Id, Ego And Superego

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What do an iceberg and a theatrical stage have in common? Well, nothing much actually, except that they both give valuable insights on the theories of human action. The iceberg is conventionally used to visualize the different levels of consciousness in our personality in psychoanalysis, and the psychoanalytic approach to understanding the nature of human interaction reveals that our past experiences shape how we act in the present. It also notably suggests that our personality consists of the id, ego, and superego, all of which exist at different levels of consciousness. On the other hand, the dramaturgical approach likens human interaction to a theatrical stage, where humans are all actors and put on different masks to play different roles throughout their lives.

Both theories highlight that there is a distinction between outward behavior and inward workings which leads us to conclude how we should act. In dramaturgy, human behavior is a performance on the front stage and the preparations made for the performance occur backstage. In psychoanalytic theory, ego consciously weighs the desires of the id and superego, both of which are in the unconscious, to construct the final behavior of the person.

Nevertheless, both theories differ in their concept of the initial stimulus which causes human behavior. Goffman states that our behavior is a result of the everchanging masks we must put on, while Freud proposes that all human behavior stems from a single constant source, our consciousness. In dramaturgy, life is compartmentalized into separate groups of people, such as family, classmates, and colleagues. Every time we interact with a different group of people, we put on a different mask, the expectations of us change, and our script which determines our behavior changes. As a result, our behavior constantly fluctuates. Meanwhile, psychoanalysis suggests the existence of the id, the ego, and the superego, which interact to determine our final behavior. The id, which exists at an unconscious level and is unchanging with time or experience, is responsible for instinctive, primitive, sexual, and aggressive urges within a person and operates on the pleasure principle, which is to do anything to obtain instant satisfaction (McLeod, 2016). The superego exists in both our unconscious and conscious, is our moral compass, and informs us of the socially ideal interactions we are to execute. The ego exists at the conscious level and mediates between both id and superego using the reality principle, constructing the best, most realistic outcome to satisfy the id which the person then acts on. Hence, the two theories differ in the conclusion they draw for what incites human behavior.

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In different scenarios, one approach might be more valuable than the other in explaining human interactions. For instance, dramaturgy might be slightly more useful than psychoanalytic theory when explaining human compassion. Let us assume that there is a soldier told to kill others, but he does not follow through because he knows that killing is wrong and would feel awful if he followed orders. The id in psychoanalytic theory accounts for all that seems evil and distasteful, but it does not explain the instinctive love for others and the natural thinking that everyone’s life is precious. Or perhaps love is learned and thus is part of the superego, hence the person would feel miserable killing others. As shown in this example, the existence of innate human goodness in psychoanalytic theory is not clearly depicted. Hence, psychoanalysis may not be the clearest lens to use to evaluate human behavior, especially in this situation. In contrast, dramaturgy shows this as the contradiction between two roles, when you put on two masks at the same time. At this moment, the soldier has to put on the masks of “a decent human” and evidently, “a soldier” simultaneously. The contradiction comes in as the soldier is unable to read off both scripts and perform both roles at the same time, since one role requires what the other condemns and forbids, causing agony within the soldier. Hence, looking at the scenario using dramaturgical theory sheds more light on the inner workings of the soldier in this particular situation.

However, dramaturgy negates the existence of a true self, that is to say, the self only exists when there is an audience. Conversely, psychoanalysis hints at the existence of a true self, one that does not change with time or experiences. This true self is called the id, and it is unchanging because it lives in the unconscious and does not interact with reality. The true self is not the superego or ego because they are constantly changing and being remastered as the person goes through life.

Unfortunately, both theories have logical gaps which the other may not be able to fill. The theory of psychoanalysis states that our past experiences – especially repressed memories, form the basis for our behavior today. However, Freud almost exclusively worked with hysteric patients, hence his conclusions might not have been particularly illuminating in describing the normal person. Goffman’s dramaturgical theory is held in contempt by many as a result of his conclusion that there is no true self.

The iceberg and the stage both shed light on the mystery that is the reason why humans interact as they do but neither can be taken in its entirety to describe all aspects of human action and all types of humans. 

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