On Defense Mechanisms

There is much talk about cognitive heuristics and biases in the Rationality community, whereas psychodynamic/​psychoanalytic perspectives of psychology tend to be dismissed as “bad science”. Now, I will agree that some Freudian ideas like penis envy and Oedipus complex are silly—but that doesn’t necessarily mean that nothing useful can be salvaged from the wreck. In particular, today I want to highlight the concept of psychological defense mechanisms developed by Sigmund Freud and his daughter Anna, and suggest how they might be of interest to rationalists.[1]

According to Freud’s theory, our unconscious minds are host to the continual battles between the “id” (our primal, pleasure-driven aspect), the “ego” (our decision-making aspect, mindful of social reality) and the “superego” (our moral compass). These internal conflicts, when prolonged, result in anxiety and other unpleasant emotions like guilt. In order to get rid of this anxiety, we rely on “defense mechanisms”, which are feats of mental gymnastics that work through self-deception. And since self-deception can be an obstacle to epistemic and instrumental rationality, it should be clear why we should at least be aware of defense mechanisms.

Here are some of the most common defense mechanisms, taken from Weiten, Dunn & Hammer (2015).[2]

  1. Repression: keeping distressing thoughts and feelings below your conscious awareness. Examples: Amber forgot the name of someone whom she really hates. Billy doesn’t remember the time he nearly got killed while serving in Afghanistan.

  2. Projection: attributing your own thoughts and feelings to someone else. Examples: Claire feels sexual tension with a colleague, which she attributes to the colleague’s motive to seduce her. Dennis doesn’t like his boss, but tells others that he actually likes the boss—it’s just that the boss doesn’t like Dennis.

  3. Displacement: re-directing emotions from their original source to a substitute target. Examples: Emily had a rough day at work, so she unleashes her anger onto her husband and cat. Frank has been disciplined by his parents, and takes his anger out on his little sister.

  4. Reaction formation: behaving in a way that is the opposite of what your true feelings would imply. Examples: Gemma unconsciously resents her child, so she spoils the child with gifts. Harry speaks out against homosexuality, but has latent homosexual impulses of his own.

  5. Regression: reverting to immature behavioral patterns. Examples: Irma has trouble finding a new job, but boasts about her massive talent in an exaggerated way. Jason throws a temper tantrum when he doesn’t get his way.

  6. Rationalization: creating false yet plausible excuses to justify socially unacceptable behavior. Examples: Kate binge-watches Netflix instead of studying because “studying more wouldn’t help her anyway”. Leon cheats someone in a business transaction because “everybody does it”.

  7. Intellectualization: looking at difficulties in a detached and abstract way to suppress your emotional reactions. Examples: Molly has been diagnosed with a terminal illness, so she tries to learn as much as possible about the disease’s details and treatment. Nathan is deep in debt due to overspending, so he creates a complex spreadsheet of how long it would take to repay with different interest rates and payment options.

  8. Identification: boosting your self-esteem by forming alliances (real or imaginary) with some person or group. Examples: Ophelia identifies with a number of famous rock stars, movie stars and athletes. Peter is an insecure college student who joined a fraternity to bolster his self-worth.

  9. Denial: refusing to acknowledge the painful realities in your life. Examples: Quinn is failing a class required for graduation, yet allows her family to plan a trip to her graduation. Ray abuses alcohol but refuses to admit he has a problem.

  10. Fantasy: fulfilling your wishes and impulses in your imagination. Examples: Samantha is unpopular but imagines that she has a large network of outgoing and popular friends. Tim is being bothered by a bully, but instead of taking action to stop it he daydreams about killing the bully.

  11. Undoing: trying to counteract feelings of guilt through acts of atonement. Examples: Ursula compliments her mother’s appearance each time after she insults her mother. Vernor dislikes his professor, so he gives the professor an apple as a gift.

  12. Overcompensation: compensating for deficiencies (real or imagined) by focusing on or exaggerating positive characteristics. Examples: Wilma is a transfer student who hasn’t made new friends, so she focuses on doing well in class. Xavier strives for status, power and wealth as ways to cover up his feelings of inferiority.

This list is not exhaustive; other defense mechanisms include isolation, introjection, reversal, splitting, acting out, passive-aggression, and sublimation, for example.[3]

What unites these various defense mechanisms is that they are common even in psychologically healthy people (akin to how all humans are vulnerable to cognitive bias), but can become problematic when we rely on them excessively. Moreover, defense mechanisms play a prominent role in defensive coping, which is a common albeit usually counterproductive and maladaptive response to stress. As coping strategies, they shield us from uncomfortable emotions like anxiety, guilt, anger, and dejection—but this comes at the price of distorting our perceptions of reality, often in self-serving ways. Furthermore, they rarely provide actual solutions to our problems, and ironically may increase anxiety.

A superior alternative is to use constructive coping techniques. These are action-oriented, realistic, and require self-control. For example, when you’re experiencing stress or burnout, you could try to regulate your emotions by exercising, meditating, writing about your experiences in a personal journal, or forgiving others. You could try to solve the problem that caused the stress by brainstorming solutions, seeking social support, or improving your time management. Finally, you could try to change your appraisal (evaluation) of the situation by reinterpreting events in a positive way, using humor, or avoiding negative self-talk like catastrophizing.

Question for discussion: How would you suggest we use the idea of defense mechanisms in theory or practice?[4]


[1] I was surprised that this topic hasn’t been discussed explicitly on LW before.

[2] “Psychology Applied to Modern Life: Adjustment in the 21st Century”—I have a summary with notes of this book on my blog, here.

[3] See the Wikipedia article.

[4] Scott Alexander seems skeptical but admits it can sometimes be useful.