Reality Testing

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Defined by Freud as a process which allows the individual to distinguish between external stimuli and internal stimuli from within the psyche, and to establish the vital inner/outer distinction. Reality-testing is a defence against hallucination and the confusion of what is actually perceived and what is imagined. Reality-testing is one of the major functions of the ego.

'Reality testing' is defined as the process through which the psyche gauges the difference between the internal and external worlds.

Acccording to Freud, the process of reality testing is a function of the ego, founded on perception and motility.

In A Metapsychological Supplement to the Theory of Dreams (1915), Freud describes the process of reality testing as a way for the psyche to determine whether the experience it is undergoing is present or is the recall of a previous one.

The need for both of these concepts in psychoanalysis stems from the psyche's proclivity to hallucinate. If a previous experience is hallucinated, meaning made present to perception by the action of intense instinctual cathexis, this may fog up the ego's capacities to differentiate between past and present, internal and external, and thus require it to refer to the intensity of the cathexis to differentiate between actual perception and hallucination.

In Freud's inaugural texts, the ego's capacity to make and change cathexes devolves upon reality testing. In the texts that followed, this capacity was assumed by perception, which conveys external reality inward (1911b), then motility, which enables flight from extreme sources of excitation and thereby enables the ego to differentiate the excitation from internal sources (1916-1917f).

However, all of these processes assume means that cannot be used in the psychoanalytic session, where motility and perception are in large part suspended. Freud's successors, Winnicott in particular, have therefore emphasized another process that contributes to distinguishing the realm of fantasy and differentiating internal and external realities. This process is based on the fact that external reality resists fantasized destruction and is not destroyed by it. Reality, or rather externality, can thus be discovered by its capacities to resist the subject's destructiveness. This confers upon the analysis of negative transference a preponderant role in treatment.

See Also

  1. Passage to the act
  2. Anxiety
  3. Danger
  4. Dementia
  5. Depressive position
  6. Experience of satisfaction
  7. Group phenomenon
  8. Idea/representation
  9. Illusion
  10. Internal/external reality
  11. Mythology and psychoanalysis
  12. Outline of Psycho-Analysis
  13. Psychoanalytic nosography
  14. Splitting of the ego
  15. Truth
  16. Wish
  17. hallucinatory satisfaction of a wish
  18. Wish/yearning


  • Freud, Sigmund. (1911b). Formulations on the two principles of mental functioning. SE, 12: 213-226.
  • ——. (1916-1917f [1915]). A metapsychological supplement to the theory of dreams. SE, 14: 217-235.
  • Abend, Sander. (1982). Reality testing as a clinical concept. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 51, 218-238.
  • Arlow, Jacob. (1969). Fantasy, memory, and reality testing. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 38, 28-51.