Rationalization: Giving excuses for shortcomings and thereby avoiding self-condemnation, disappointments, or criticism by others. Examples: After stealing from a large company, "they won't miss it. Everybody does it." After getting about average grades on the GRE (not good enough to get into Ph. D. programs), "I would have hated five more years of research and theory anyway." This is called "sour grapes," from Aesop's tale about the fox who decided the grapes too high to reach were sour anyway. The reverse is "sweet lemons," an assumption that everything happens for the best, "failing the GRE's was a blessing in disguise, now I know I want to become a counselor--maybe a social worker--and not a Ph. D."
Projection: Attributing to others one's own unacceptable thoughts, feelings, impulses, etc. So, the white person with repressed sexual urges may believe that all blacks are preoccupied with sex. The moralistic spouse, who is tempted to have an affair, begins to suspicion that his/her partner has been unfaithful. A slightly different form of paranoid projection is when a self-critical feeling or idea is attributed to others. Suppose a young woman from a religious family has strong feelings against any sexual urges she might have and, thus, almost never has them. She might start to believe, however, that others are critical of her whenever she wears a dress that shows her shape.
Displacement: redirecting our impulses (often anger) from the real target (because that is too dangerous) to a safer but innocent person. The classic case is the frustrated worker, who can't yell at the boss but comes home and yells at the spouse, who yells at the children, who kick the dog, i.e. we take it out on the people we love. Suppose we were very envious of the relationship between our sister and our mother. Our feelings may never be expressed towards them directly but take the form of resentment and distrust of most other women.
Another form of displacement is what Anna Freud described as "turning-against-self." In the last example, instead of the hatred of one's sister and mother being turned on women in general, it could be turned against oneself. This is a commonly assumed dynamic in depression and suicide.
Reaction formation: a denial and reversal of our feelings. Love turns into hate or hate into love. "Hell has no fury like a spurned lover." Where there is intense friction between a child and a parent, it can be converted into exaggerated shows of affection, sometimes sickeningly sweet and overly polite. The feelings and actions resulting from a reaction formation are often excessive, for instance the loud, macho male may be concealing (from himself) sexual self-doubts or homosexual urges. Or, the person who is unconsciously attracted to the same sex may develop an intense hatred of gays. People, such as TV preachers, who become crusaders against "loose morals" may be struggling with their own sexual impulses.
Identification: allying with someone else and becoming like them in order to allay anxiety. Remember Freud's notion that the Oedipus and Electra Complexes are resolved by identification with the same sexed parent. Other examples: occasionally an oppressed person will identify with the oppressor, some Jews helped Hitler, some women want their husbands to be dominant and feel superior to them and other women. In other cases, a person may associate with and emulate an admired person or group to reduce anxiety. High school cliques serve this purpose. A new college freshman may feel tense and alone and out of place; she notices that most other students are "a little dressed up," not sloppy shirt and jeans. Her roommates insist on studying from 7:00 to 10:00 every night except Friday and Saturday; they are more serious than her old friends and their conversations reflect these differences. They commented about her "country" accent and the fact that she didn't watch the news. She started dressing up occasionally, watched the news, got more interested in politics, and studied a lot more than ever before. When she went home at Christmas, her friends told her she had changed and dad commented that he was losing his little girl. She didn't know it but she had identified with a new group and learned to feel more comfortable.
Sublimation: transforming unacceptable needs into acceptable ambitions and actions. One may convert a compelling interest in getting a parent's attention into a drive to do well in school. Sexual drives can be pored into sports. Anger and resentment of the advantages of others can be funneled into an obsession to excel in a lucrative career.
Fantasy: daydreams and their substitutes--novels and TV Soaps--are escapes, a way to avoid our real worries or boredom. We may imagine being highly successful when we feel unsuccessful; at least we feel better for the moment. Actually, we often benefit by rehearsing in fantasy for future successes. At other times, fantasies may provide a way to express feelings we need to get off our chest. Fantasy is only a defense when it is an escape. Anticipation of the future through fantasy is a mark of an intelligent species.
Many self-help methods use fantasy: covert rehearsal, covert sensitization, desensitization, venting feelings, decision making, empathy, increasing motivation and awareness and many others. If fantasies can be therapeutic, then they can be harmful, e.g. imagining awful consequences could create fears, sad thoughts may produce depression, reliving an insult in fantasy might build anger. Fantasy may be part of the problem or part of the solution.
Compensation or substitution: trying to make up for some feeling of inadequacy by excelling in some way. Alfred Adler, a free-thinking student of Freud, observed that feelings of weakness and inferiority are common when we are young. Much of life, he thought, was devoted to compensating for our real or imaginary weaknesses, i.e. striving for superiority. Both men and women strive for power, competency, courage, wealth, and independence. Karen Horney wrote, "The neurotic striving for power...is born of anxiety, hatred and feelings of inferiority. ...the normal striving for power is born of strength, the neurotic of weakness."
Sometimes we work on improving in the area we are weak in, so the skinny, shy child becomes Miss or Mr. America or the kid with speech problems becomes a politician (like Demosthenes with rocks in his mouth or Winston Churchill). Sometimes we find other areas to make up for our weaknesses; the unattractive student becomes an outstanding scholar, the average student becomes an outstanding athlete, the person in an unsatisfying marriage becomes deeply involved with the children. These are compensatory substitutions. Many are good ways of handling stress; some are not, as when an unloved teenager seeks love promiscuously.
Undoing: if you have done something bad, sometimes you can undo it or make up for it. Example: if you have said some very critical and hurtful things about one of your parents or a friend, later you may try to undo the harm by saying nice things about them or by be being nice to them and apologizing (sometimes it is the overdone apology that reveals the hostility). In essence it is having the decency to feel guilty and do something about it.
Freud used undoing to explain certain obsessive-compulsive acts, e.g. a 17-year-old with masturbation guilt felt compelled to recite the alphabet backwards every time he had a sexual thought. He thought that would undo the sin.
Intellectualization or isolation: hiding one's emotional responses or problems under a facade of big words and pretending one has no problem. Suppose you were listening to a friend describe going through his parents' divorce. He may tell about deeply hurtful situations but show no sadness or anger; he gives a superficial behavioral description of what happened; he might even clinically "analyze" his parents' underlying motives without showing his own emotions. Likewise, people may discuss war without vividly feeling the misery of many people dying. This is a repression of the painful parts. Freud believed that the compulsive hand-washer was trying to cleanse his hands of the guilt of masturbation but the feeling of guilt was separated from the hand-washing.
There are many other defense mechanisms ("acting out" as a way of rebelling and reducing tension, "self-repudiation" to get others off your back, seeking sympathy, etc.). More importantly, there are many other much healthier ways of coping with stress, fears, and anxiety which we will review later in this chapter and in chapter 12.
As Sigmund Freud described ego defense mechanisms, the processes were primarily unconscious. As Anna Freud and later psychoanalysts studied these processes more intensely and re-defined them, the mechanisms came to be seen as more conscious and available to the ego (the conscious self) for dealing with anxiety. This new focus on the ego as a coping, self-directing part of our personality came after Freud. For Freud, however, the great driving forces were in the id--the unconscious sexual and destructive instincts. The ego was merely "a rider of a spirited horse" who tried to have some control over the animal instincts. The later "ego psychologists" also extended the role of the ego beyond reducing anxiety and into a means of mastering and enjoying life. Today the Cognitive theorists tend to believe, again, that the ego--the rational mind--is in charge or, at least, has the potential to make a substantial difference. Freud would say, if he were here today, that most of psychology has repressed and denied his disturbing insights into the powerful sexual, selfish, hostile, and irrational nature of man, just as he predicted we would. Could he be right? Are we denying our basic biological and innate drives?
It is likely that each of us can sometimes recognize when we use defense mechanisms. We can't detect every time, but by being very familiar with the common defense mechanisms and by being vigilant, we can investigate our possible use of defense mechanisms and keep ourselves honest. Most of the time (not all, as we saw in denial) it is helpful to stay in touch with reality. Awareness is the mark of a healthy, adjusted person. Work on it.
More recent experimental investigations of defenses
Almost all of the information about defense mechanisms mentioned above comes from pre-W.W.II psychoanalysts. Just to illustrate how "scientific" beliefs wax and wane, history shows that many academic psychologists during the 70's and early 80's rejected the notion of unconscious thoughts and, especially, Freud's notions of unconscious ego defenses. Clinical psychologists, however, in contrast to experimentalists, continued using the idea of defenses. Then in the late 1980's, cognitive researchers began to repeatedly find ample evidence for unconscious mental processes. For example, experimental studies have shown that experiences we have no conscious memory of can have an influence on our performance of certain tasks; factors we have no awareness of can influence our decision-making; procedures that are at first conscious can be repeated often enough that they become automatic and unconscious; in social interactions many people deceive themselves in ways that build their self-esteem; children who claim very high self-esteem are often hiding a profound sense of inferiority, etc., etc. The researchers have often used different terms, such as "scapegoating" instead of displacement, "self-presentation ploys" instead reaction formation, "positive illusions" instead of denial, "counterfactual thinking" instead of undoing, and so on (Cramer, 2000). But, a rose is a rose...
Many benefits will come from the new experimental interests in defensive cognitive processes. For one thing, there are clarifying distinctions being made between coping processes and defense mechanisms. Coping processes are conscious, intentional, learned, and associated with normal adjustment. Defense mechanisms are unconscious, unintentional, self-protective instincts or dispositions, and associated with pathology (Cramer, 1998). This is a meaningful difference, because different self-change techniques will surely be needed for coping than for dealing with defenses.
Another clarification emerging from the research is the distinction between sometimes healthy or adaptive defense mechanisms and very disturbed mental processes. Sublimation, suppression (sort of conscious denial), altruism, humor, and even some denial in children can be healthy and useful in certain circumstances. Also, some defenses may temporarily help one adapt but in the long run interfere with problem-solving: intellectualization, repression, undoing, displacement, dissociation, idealization, misjudging one's power, and others. Still other defenses alter our perception of reality and, thus, interfere with solving our problems: denial, projection, rationalization, and unrealistic fantasies. Some more hidden defenses are revealed by certain maladaptive behaviors: acting out, severe withdrawal, passive-aggressive acts, and so on. Lastly, extremely irrational defenses play a central role in serious psychoses: delusional projection, serious distortion of reality, complete denial of basic conditions, and so on. The more maladaptive defenses that one uses, the more likely one has a serious psychiatric disorder, many symptoms, and interpersonal problems.
If you compare Freud's defense mechanisms with modern research finding, the traditional defenses seem more intuitively understandable and more applicable to a wider range of situations. Eventually, with more and more research, new findings will show us more details about when and how defenses are used in specific circumstances. Then, we will develop better ways to cope than by using defenses that rely on distortions of reality.
Unconscious causes of fears
If exaggerated conscious thoughts of terrible consequences can cause fears, why can't unconscious "thoughts" or urges cause fears? This is speculation but worth understanding. The origin of many fears is mysterious. A fear of knives is fairly common but the person doesn't usually know the source. Hauck (1975) had a patient who looked for worms, snakes, and bugs between the sheets and under her bed every night for months. Freud described a famous case, Little Hans, a 5-year-old boy who had a great fear of white horses with black mouths. Where did these fears come from?
Many persons, who develop such a fear of knives that they can't go into the kitchen or have to throw away all their knives, often have a very stressful relationship with someone. It may not be conscious, but it is easy to speculate that inside somewhere there is a fear of losing control over their anger or self-destruction. The knife phobia is symbolic of the stress caused by anger underneath the conscious surface. A person afraid of bugs and worms in bed may have had a traumatic, dirty, disgusting sexual experience, part of which has been repressed. Suppose a young person is sexually approached by an older person; the young person may repress their own sexual interests and the resulting guilt may surface as a phobia of bugs or ugly crawlies in bed. Actually, the specific phobia may spread to a variety of things--older people, specific places (like a woods), of sex with anyone, etc.
After gathering 140 pages of information from Little Hans's father, Freud believed that Little Hans unconsciously feared his father, which got displaced to horses. What was the evidence? It was complicated and fascinating. Read Freud. It basically involved the Oedipus Complex. Little Hans liked getting into bed with his mother early in the morning. He had a fascination at age 3 with his, his father's, his mother's, and animals' sexual parts. His mother had told him his penis would be cut off if he played with it. Also, Little Hans had seen pans of blood after his little sister was born. Not long afterwards, he learned that his mother had no penis, although he had told her he thought she would have a big one "like a horse." One can see how Little Hans or any child might think of the 3-year-old equivalent of "castration anxiety."
Little Hans also became very jealous of the attention given to his little sister (sibling rivalry). He wished she had not been born. And he started to fear (wish?) that his father would leave and never come home. Obviously, Little Hans was very troubled. But how did he get a fear of horses? Consider the ego defenses described above. Surely the competition and hostility towards the father would be scary and be repressed. His own resentment towards the father might be projected to the father: "I hate him" becomes "he hates me" and wants to hurt me. The unconscious hostile impulses towards the competitor (the father) may seek expression in some way, some reasonably safe way--through symbols or dreams. It's too scary to think consciously about fighting with his father and being hurt, perhaps castrated, but he can develop an irrational fear of being bitten by a white horse with a black mouth. The phobia symbolizes the underlying conflict. And, by the way, the father was, of course, white and had a black mustache!