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Pleasure-Pain Principle


Explanations > Psychoanalysis > Concepts > Pleasure-Pain Principle

Description | Discussion | See also



We are born with a pleasure principle, that we will seek immediate gratification of needs, for which our bodies reward us with feelings of pleasure.

The reverse is also true, and the pain principle says that, whilst seeking pleasure people will also seek to avoid pain.


The pleasure-pain principle was originated by Sigmund Freud in modern psychoanalysis, although Aristotle noted the significance in his 'Rhetoric', more than 300 years BC.

'We may lay it down that Pleasure is a movement, a movement by which the soul as a whole is consciously brought into its normal state of being; and that Pain is the opposite.'

The pleasure principle is at the base on hedonism, the idea that life is to be lived to the full and pleasure sought as a primary goal. Hedonists in the extreme will be self-destructive in their use of sex, drugs, rock and roll and other methods of gratification.

Pleasure is also related to Jeremy Benham's notions in Utilitarianism, where the 'felcific calculus' is used to calculate the maximum utilitarian gain in happiness.

Pleasure and pain are basic principles in Conditioning, where you get more of what you reward and less of what you punish.

Pain can be more immediate than pleasure, leading us to become more concerned with avoidance of pain and hence paying more attention to it. This can develop into a general preference in life towards avoidance.

Anticipated pleasure and anticipated pain are almost as powerful a motivator as the feelings themselves as we think about the pleasure and pain that may occur in the future. It is arguable that these have had a significant effect on human evolution as they move us towards a more sustainable life.

Pleasure and pain are at the root of the principles of Pull and Push.

We may develop tendencies that veer more towards one of attraction or avoidance, for example where we gain pleasure from endless curiosity, or where we learn at an early that punishment is likely when we make others angry.

When pleasure and pain occur together, a certain amount of confusion may occur, which itself may be pleasant or painful and hence determine what happens. Simultaneous pain and pleasure is a basis for masochism.

See also

Utilitarianism, Pull, Push principle, Attraction vs. Avoidance Preference

Reality principle, Sigmund Freud, Avoidant Personality


Aristotle, Rhetoric, Book 1, Chapter 11



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