Motivation and emotion/Book/2023/Death drive

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Death drive:
What is the death drive and how can it be negotiated?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Case study: introduction
Figure 1. Group of people skydiving
Your friend Sally engages regularly in extreme sports such as scuba diving, rafting and now wants to start sky diving (see Figure 1). You often wonder to yourself why she would engage in such activities that could leave her seriously injured or even dead! What could motivate your friend who grew up with similar morals, rules and lifestyle to you to engage in risky behaviour? Sigmund Frued’s[spelling?] death drive theory answers these questions and explains Sally's motivation to engage in these activities.

The death drive as described by Sigmund Freud is the theory that describes the forces behind a person’s drive towards death (see Figure 1) and destruction{{comment|definition here is somewhat tautological). The death drive as posited by Freud (Sugarman, 2016) describes the forces behind a person’s drive and action towards death and destruction. This theory explains behaviour on individual levels (risk-taking, aggression, and self-harm) and larger social levels (war and terrorism). Some examples of death drive include smoking, extreme sports, and murder.

Originally proposed by Sabina Speilrein (1994) in her paper “Destruction as the Cause of Coming Into Being”, she asks why drive (reproductive instinct/sex drive) harbours negative feelings in addition to anticipated positive feelings[grammar?]. Freud was influenced by Speilrein several years afters its publication (Kirsch, Dimitrijevic & Buchholz, 2022) Chronology/dates seem kinda mixed up here. Freud's theory explains a person’s engagement in self-destructive behaviours such as smoking, aggressive behaviours, and other behaviours that push a person towards ending their life. The death drive, known as Thanatos, opposes what Freud outlines as the life drive, known as Eros, which drives a person towards survival, sex, and other life-producing drives (Kli, 2018). Understanding our death drive can be useful in addressing self-destructive behaviours, however modern theorists and clinical studies contradict each other with on [say what?] the usefulness and application of the death drive (Mills, 2006). Understanding and negotiating one’s own death drive involves verbalising destructive inner voices in order to open up the dialogue between the person and their inner voice. By understanding and confronting inner self-destructive voices, one can negotiate actions caused by their death drive.

Focus questions:

  • What is the death drive and it's origins?
  • What is the relevance of the theory in modern settings?
  • How is death drive used in clinical settings?
  • How can we negotiate the death drive?

What is the death drive?[edit | edit source]


File:SépultureCathelineau.JPG|thumb|211x211px|Figure 2. Grim reaper also known as death]] The death drive represents the human tendency to engage in self-destructive behaviours that lead to a person’s debilitation and death (Lee, 2015). The death drive is seen socially through, but not limited to, self-destructive behaviour, aggression, and risk-taking such as extreme sports (see Figure 2) and gambling (see Figure 3). The death drive runs against the more optimistic views of human nature and is based on the assumptions that if severe frustrations or trauma were absent in early development, then aggression would not be a major human problem (Kernberg, 2009). Freud considered tension increase and decrease in an organism the essence of his theory (Sternbach, 1975). This tension increase and decrease is seen between the death and life drive, when an organism engages in more self-destructive or death drive behaviours. Freudian psychoanalytical theory gives idea to an Eros and Thanatos theory where there is a drive for sustaining life (Eros) and to counter this drive towards death and destruction (Thanatos). These names come from Ancient Greece, where Eros was the god of love and fertility and Thanatos was the human manifestation of death (Lee, 2015). Freud maintained that the life drive Eros is opposed by the death drive Thanatos.

When understanding death drive, it can be helpful to look at Freud's drive theory. Drive theory, from Freud’s perspective, is the force of a psychological motivation, or an active innate mental need (Brown, 2017). It assumes that organisms have an innate psychological need that they are born with and that tension is caused when this need is not met and that once the need is met the organism can return to homeostasis and reduce tension. Drive theory explains the idea that death drive is thus a motivational force that pushes a person towards self-destructive behaviours. This theory assists in understanding death drive as it explains psychological motivation that pushes us towards a behaviour, and that tension is held in the organism until they fulfil the need.

Death drive can also be understood through Clark Hull’s drive-reduction learning theory which views drive as motivation that occurs due to physiological and/or psychological needs. Drive-reduction theory explains how reinforcement reduces drive stimuli in order to reduce or satisfy a need (Karraker & King, 1969). This theory is used to explain behaviour, learning, and motivation. Drive-reduction can be seen as a means to explain the motivation behind the biological causes that drive people to self-destructive behaviours and emotions. Intrinsic motivation, which is doing an activity for inherent satisfaction rather than a separable consequence, also contributes to the understanding of death drive. Within death drive, Freud accounts for internally derived motivation, impulse, or activity towards destruction (Mills, 2006). This motivational theory helps to understand the death drive as it explains that when a person engages in a self-destructive behaviour or negative emotion this reinforces the death drive, as the tension within the persons[grammar?] body would have been satisfied.

Origins of the death drive[edit | edit source]

Whilst death drive is tied closely with Freud’s psychoanalytic theory, it was not first developed by Freud and many have since learnt and developed upon the death drive to expand understanding. Some motivational drive theories such as intrinsic motivation support the idea of the death drive, however it is important to understand the limitations and critiques of this theory. Further development in modern settings challenges the idea of death drive and does not indulge in Freud's theory, maintaining that a revision is necessary (Kirsch et al., 2022) as well as highlighting it's limitations in application.

Destruction as the cause of coming into being[edit | edit source]

In her paper “Destruction as the Cause of Coming Into Being”, published in 1912 Speilrein asked why does her drive (reproductive instinct/sex drive) harbour negative feelings in addition to anticipated positive feelings? In asking this question Speilrein highlighted the negative and destructive emotions she experienced in combination with the positive ones. This was the first introduction of the death drive. This was the introduction to negative feelings that influenced Freud several years after its publication (Kirsch et al., 2022), which developed into the death drive as it is understood today.

Freud's development of the death drive[edit | edit source]

Figure 4. Sigmund Freud

Freud’s (see Figure 4) thesis on the death drive is one of the most original theories in the history of ideas that potentially provides an explanation for the conundrums that have beset human civilisation, such as self-destructive behaviours and behaviours that lead to war and terrorism (Mills, 2006). This theory was initially speculative and referred to cosmological, physical, psychological, and clinical dimension (Kirsch, 2022). In 1920, Freud published "Beyond the Pleasure Principle" in which he describes the life drive as that which seeks to force and hold together, to unite the cells of living substance by an increase of tension, whereas the death drive opposes this tendency by seeking to abolish the tension (Sternbach, 1975). Within this monograph, Freud explains the repetition compulsion to the existence of a death instinct that exists within all people in the absence of any evident payoff, such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Freud also uses this monograph to introduce a new dualism as the overarching dynamic of mental life and the idea of the death instinct as operating in opposition to life instincts is born, which by the end of his essay includes both the sexual and ego instincts of his former schematic (Sugarman, 2016).

Further development of the death drive[edit | edit source]

The continuing development of death drive and its many criticisms have since followed from the original publications of both Speilrein and Freud. Melanie Klein and Karl Menninger who are respectively a psychoanalyst and psychiatrist reflect further on the development of the death drive in the 1930s, and both utilise the term death instinct in a purely clinical sense (García-Castrillón Armengou, 2009). Death drive in this way was utilised as it followed psychoanalytic paradigms such as ways of overserving material that hinge on specific ways of asking and answering questions. However, more recent development highlighted a differing view when using the death drive in a clinical field.

The life versus death instinct has been extensively discussed, resulting in conflicting opinions in the course of the development of the death drive. It has been suggested that assuming the existence of an innate force to explain destructiveness is not necessary in clinical field thinking (De Masi, 2015). It is unnecessary as there are now better, more coherent theories that explain destructiveness in clinical fields. It has been found in multiple instances that the term is problematic and more complex than Freud originally hypothesised and that a revision of the death drive is necessary (Kirsch et al., 2022). It is problematic as the idea of Eros cannot be reduced to a particular drive (Penot, 2016), and therefore neither can Thanatos or the death drive. Whilst the death drive has limitations, it should not be discarded entirely as it there are those who declare it useful such as Slavoj Žižek who deem it useful in some instances. However there are those philosophers and psychiatrists who disagree.

The death drive is highly contested in the concept of psychoanalysis as there is a lack agreement to its coherency (Oxford reference, n.d.) and is continuously rejected and undone by philosophers and psychiatrists such as Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Lacan. Psychoanalysis focuses on the idea of unconscious and repressed emotions, thoughts, memories, and desires being released, and is shaped by psychoanalytic theory. The death drive is rejected as these psychoanalysts undo Freud's claims in their own counterarguments as well as rejecting the theory out of ridiculousness.

Using death drive to understand negative emotions[edit | edit source]

Figure 3. Slot machines, where people often partake in gambling activities

The death drive is often used to explain a range of emotions which include but are not limited to aggression, hate, anger, fear, and envy (Freud, 1933). Historically, Freud underpinned the death drive from clinical phenomena such as negative therapeutic reactions, anxiety dreams, and repetition-compulsion (Kato & Kanba, 2013). Other psychoanalysts such as Herbert Rosenfeld (1971) even regarded the death drive in line with the concept of pathological organisation, in which good objects are abolished and destroyed internally in the self.

It is also noted that hate seen through a death drive lens also includes hate towards others, as well as hate toward oneself. The death drive can be seen as an open door to theoretical ambivalence and emotionally determined attitudes which hindered the very progress it was meant to initiate (Sternbach, 1975). Through this lens, it is seen how the death drive gives reason and meaning to emotions that are negative to experience.

Aggression[edit | edit source]

Figure 5. Child displaying aggressive behaviour.

Aggression (see Figure 5) is defined as an unprovoked assault or expression that is directed outward upon resistant or challenging objects or situations (Marcovitz, 2009). Aggression is a kind of behaviour with the goal to inflict injury on some person or object (Berkowitz, 1965). Freud’s theory rationalises that the death drive is responsible for and controls aggression, both directed inwards and outwards and can be seen as a scientific approach towards aggression (Sternbach, 1975). Aggressive motivation underlies some of the most harmful behaviours to individuals and societies, yet aggression is seen universally and exists in many different animal species (Harmon-Jones & Schutter 2022). Aggression can be experienced through internal desires and thoughts, and from external sources such as reacting to another person. It is also both internally and externally that aggression can be expressed. Internal aggression includes channelling aggression towards oneself through self-harm language or behaviours. External aggression includes anger towards others, destructive behaviour towards others which include both vocal and physical violence. These sources and examples of aggression are explained through the death drive theory as aggressive motivation likely originated as an adaptive processes involved in coopting and protecting resources and coping with threats.

Understanding negative emotions[edit | edit source]

Negative self-destructive emotions can be understood from the death drive perspective. The death drive provides insight as to why people hurt each other, why war occurs, and our own self-destruction. Destructiveness underlies psychopathologies such as drug addiction and self-destructive behaviour, as these behaviours harm a person. The role that negative emotions play within this drive is that they serve as a motivational factor that drives a person towards acting upon their innate death drive. A person experiences these negative emotions and acts upon them as the death drive causes tension within a person, that is only relieved once the person experiences these emotions and thus behaviours. Whilst there is some evidence that self-aggressive behaviour of large groups remains to be seen (Kernberg, 2009), on an individual level understanding negative emotions and their role helps to negotiate a person’s death drive.

Case study: understanding motives

You are often left wondering why your friend Sally engages in extreme sports. Just thinking about these activities worries you as you think about the negative consequences, such as injury and death! You now understand that Sally's death drive encourages her to engage in these activities in order to balance her homeostatic state. Until she fulfils this drive, she is left with tension in her body that leaves her uncomfortable and pushes her towards these activities. You now understand we all have these tendencies and act upon them in different ways, engaging in different behaviours such as smoking, reckless driving and substance abuse.

Suicide ideation vs. death drive[edit | edit source]

Figure 6. Man who has completed suicide

Suicide ideation is a broad term used to describe a range of contemplations, wishes, and preoccupation with death and suicide (see figure 6). Although linked, suicide ideation and death drive cannot be used interchangeably as they explain different phenomena. The death drive is seen in this sense as providing some explanation for suicide ideation as suicide desire can be caused by the simultaneous presence of two interpersonal constructs. These two interpersonal conflicts are thwarted belongingness and perceived burdensomeness (Van Orden et al., 2011), which can be seen as a drive towards suicide. The death drive explains that these interpersonal constructs originate from a person's drive towards death and destruction, and that is their reason for existence.

Relevance in clinical and modern settings[edit | edit source]

The relevance of death drive within clinical and modern settings is disputed in research. Contemporary psychoanalytic theorists view the death drive as nonsense (Mills, 2006). This is because further research has improved explanations of what the death drive describes. In psychoanalytic settings, death drive can help to understand self-destructive inner voices and suicide ideation/completion. However, it has been suggested that the existence of an innate force to explain destructiveness is not necessary in the clinical field and that it is more useful to relate the destructiveness in severe patients to trauma (De Masi, 2015). It is seen that whilst death drive can be used in some way to understand self-destructive tendencies in a clinical setting, utilisation of the death drive is not the best way to understand self-destructive tendencies.

The death drive was applicable to explain events such as World War I provided context and cause for Freud's theory of death drive through mental illness such as "shell shock" which we now know as PTSD (Kirsch, 2022). Whilst useful in this context, the death drive has become outdated and cannot be widespread. For most regular people, activities that can be classified as self-destructive such as gambling are latent alternative options that will not be automatically activated when the drives are optimally satisfied, and they only become active in a repetitive manner when the drives are persistently corrupted and become disorders (Kirsch, 2022). It is not useful now to use death drive as a sole explanation for motivation towards destructive behaviours.

Negotiating our death drive[edit | edit source]

It is now understood that death drive can be seen as responsible for our negative and self-destructive behaviours and that verbalising destructive inner voices in the second person in order to change the forces that influence a person to act upon their death drive. This opens up the dialogue between the person and their inner voice. One can then negotiate the death drive by confronting inner self-destructive voices. Once a person has initiated a dialogue between themselves and destructive inner voices they are then able to move away from engaging in self destructive behaviours.[factual?]

Negotiating death drive on a wider scale in instances of war and terrorism is slightly different. The death drive can be used to explain these events however is limited in its approach to negotiating these wider-scale events, due to the nature of the death drive. The nature of the death drive struggles to explain aggressive and destructive behaviour within large groups as there is a lack of evidence (Kernberg, 2009). In this scenario it is used to help understand what drives a group of people as a collective to these wider-scale destructive behaviours. What drives a group of people to engage in larger destruction is the tension caused by the death drive combined with gradual exposure and socialisation towards extreme behaviour (Borum, 2004).

Test your knowledge!

1 Smoking is an example of a behaviour resulting from a person's death drive


2 Negotiating one's death drive does not involve confronting inner self-destructive voices


3 According to Freud's "Beyond the Pleasure Principle," the life drive seeks to unite living substances by increasing tension, while the death drive opposes this tendency by aiming to abolish tension



Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Freud’s death drive theory describes the forces that push a person towards destructive actions and emotions such as risk-taking, self-harm, physical violence, aggression, hate, and anxiety (Sugarman, 2016). A person experiences this push due to the tension experienced within themselves that is only relieved once the person has experienced and engaged in negative emotions and destructive behaviours (Sternbach, 1975). Originally brought to life by Sabina Speilrein to answer the question surrounding harbouring negative emotions one feels when anticipating positive emotions (Speilrein 1994), the death drive has been developed with a range of criticisms highlighting its limitations in the clinical setting (De Masi, 2015; Mills, 2006). Whilst the death drive can be a helpful tool for some to assist in understanding self-destructive tendencies, clinical settings display the loss of relevance as the death drive is outdated and inadequate as other research is more proficient then the death drive. Despite this the death drive can give insight into why a person experiences negative emotions and engages in self-destructive behaviours. Once understood a person can negotiate their own death drive. Negotiating the death drive can be done by confronting the inner self-destructive voices that push us towards negative emotions and behaviours, so that a person is no longer motivated to engage in these emotions and behaviours.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Berkowitz, L. (1965). The concept of aggressive drive: Some additional considerations. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 2, 301–329.

Borum, R. (2004) Psychology of terrorism. University of South Florida.

Brown, B. (2017). Drive Theory. In Zeigler-Hill, V., & Shackelford, T (Eds.), Encyclopedia of personality and individual differences. Springer Nature.

Casopreso, F. (2016). The death drive according to Sabina Spielrein. Institute of Human Sciences, 27(3), 414–419.

De Masi, F. (2015). Is the concept of the death drive still useful in the clinical field? The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 96, 445–458. DOI: 10.1111/1745-8315.12308

García-Castrillón Armengou, F. (2009). The death drive: Conceptual analysis and relevance in the Spanish psychoanalytic community. The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 90(2), 263–289.

Harmon-Jones, E., & Schutter, D. J. L. G. (2022). Aggressive motivation: An introduction and overview. Motivation Science, 8(2), 77–80.

Karraker, R. J., & King, N. B. (1969). Reading in classroom management. MSS Information Corporation.

Kato, T. A., & Kanba, S. (2013). Are microglia minding us? Digging up the unconscious mind-brain relationship from a neuropsychoanalyitc approach. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 7(13), DOI: 10.3389/fnhum.2013.00013

Kernberg, O. (2009). The concept of the death drive: A clinical perspective. International Journal of Psychoanal, 90, 1009–1023. DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-8315.2009.00187.x

Kirsch, M., Dimitrijevic, A., & Buchholz, M. B. (2022). “Death drive” scientifically reconsidered: Not a drive but a collection of trauma-induced auto-addictive diseases. Frontiers, 13, 01–13.

Kli, M. (2018). Eros and Thanatos: A Nondualistic Interpretation: The dynamic of drives in personal and civilization development from Frued to Marcuse, The Psychoanalytic Review, 105(1), 67–89. DOI: 10.1521/prev.2018.105.1.67

Lee, B. X. (2015). Causes and cures III: The psychology of violence. Aggression and Violent Behaviour, 25, 210–214.

Marcoovitz, E. (2009). Aggression: An overview. Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 2(1), 11–20.

Mills, J. (2006). Reflection on the death drive. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 23(2), 373–382. DOI: 10.1037/0736-9735.23.2.373

Penot, B. (2015). The so-called death drive, an indispensable force for any subjective life. The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 98(2), 299–321.

Rosenfeld, H. (1971). A clinical approach to the psychoanalytic theory of the life and death instincts: An investigation into the aggressive aspects of narcissism. The International journal of psycho-analysis, 52(2), 169–178.

Spielrein, S. (1994). Destruction as the cause of coming into being. Journal of Analytical Psychology, 39, 155–186.

Sternback, O. (1975). Aggression, the death drive and the problem of sadomasochism. A reinterpretation of Freud’s second drive theory. The International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 56(321), 4.

Sugarman, S. (2016). Beyond the pleasure principle: Beyond the pleasure principle (1920). In what Freud really meant: A chronological reconstruction of his theory of the mind (pp. 87–104). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. DOI:10.1017/CBO9781316340240.009

Van Orden, K. A., Witte, T. K., Cukrowicz, K. C., Braithwaite, S., Selby, E. A., & Joiner, T. E. (2011). The interpersonal theory of suicide, National Library of Medicine, 117(2). 575–600. DOI: 10.1037/a0018697

External links[edit | edit source]