Death instinct

Other Names:
Death wish
Wish for self-destruction
Desire for death

The wish for self-destruction or self-harm expresses itself in the life histories of countless individuals. Some destroy their lives; others their careers; and others their relationships with other people. It is a sometimes invisible, corrosive force eating away at human development.

There are a number of theories to explain this phenomenon: Psychoanalysts, following Freud, speak of a death instinct; some feel this works as an efflux from the powers of the root psychic force, the libido. To other analysts it is an energy in its own right, the destrudo; while again for others, the self-directed destructive energy is distinguished as the mortido: this is supposed by some to be biologically situated although triggered by physical or mental reactions to what the organism perceives as deep-level pain, and thus constitutes an escape hatch. Others deny the biology, and say it is not an instinct but a psychological drive arising with the development of the individual psychic structure. Still other analysts suspect a positive purpose to what might be termed, self-reducing, or self-limiting tendencies in the psyche.


A tendency to death is seen in religious practices. The ascetics mortified themselves, the alchemists projected a stage called 'mortido' into their work, and Christian and Islamic mystics during the Middle Ages strove for a spiritual 'annihilation'. The religious suicidal hero is seen in several phases in Japanese and Islamic history, at Masada and at Mt Ségur, as it is frequently associated with militarism and terrorism. From a sociological perspective, indigenous peoples' mystical participation in nature has its counterpart among those, in modern urbanized societies, who wish to lose their identities by participation in a group, sect or other organization, or in fashionable large-scale movements such as ecology, women's liberation, etc, or in the 'bosom' of a political party or ideology. The abuse of drugs, alcohol and other substances may be due to self-destructive tendencies.

There is considerable confusion of both terminology and conceptualization in this subject, and the observable facts of physical deterioration in its natural phase, viz senescence, and its attendant mental, emotional and social factors, are not adequately included. In the analytical psychology of Jung some emphasis was given to this phase as the field upon which the final maturation or integration of the personality could be played. The accord of the psyche with physical dissolution is seen as a therapeutic process from this viewpoint. Since the physical condition of senescence may trigger the first thoughts of death, the biological alarm clock in the body also may go off at an earlier hour, a carry-over or atavism of the not-so remote times when, following millions of years of evolution, Homo sapiens died at one-half or less of the age attained now. This helps to account for the severity of middle-age depression or crisis which can strike before the age of forty or as late as the middle fifties. Other biological causes for 'death instincts' may be disease of the organism. Social reasons for an individual's proclivity for self-destruction may be societal and family 'disease'.


44% of Germans want to die before age 80, although 54% would reduce their calorie intake by half, and 10% would give up sex if these tactics could ensure them an extra 20 years of life.

Related UN Sustainable Development Goals:
GOAL 15: Life on Land
Problem Type:
F: Fuzzy exceptional problems
Date of last update
17.06.2018 – 03:58 CEST