Defense mechanisms are strategies people utilize to help them cope with anxiety or disturbing thoughts and feelings. They are usually unconscious and involve a distortion of reality.
Although defense mechanisms are often considered negative, Freud believed they were necessary for healthy human functioning.
That sentiment is affirmed by Bowins (2004), who states that:
“…Psychological defense mechanisms represent a crucial component of our capacity to maintain emotional homeostasis. Without them, the conscious mind would be much more vulnerable to negatively charged emotional input, such as that pertaining to anxiety and sadness” (p. 1).
Defense Mechanisms Examples
- Denial: When something is too upsetting to handle, a person might just reject that it exists. For example, when an older sibling refuses to admit that their actions created problems for the younger sibling. Instead of acknowledging the facts, the older sibling denies what happened.
- Humor: Using comedy or wit to diffuse or alleviate tension in a difficult or uncomfortable situation. For example, someone who has recently lost their job may crack jokes about their unemployment to cope with their feelings of embarrassment or failure.
- Projection: Attributing one’s own disturbing impulses or desires onto others. For example, a person that feels guilty about their deep-seated intimate desires may be constantly suspicious that others possess those desires.
- Identification: Adopting the qualities or traits of someone else, usually as a means of increasing self-esteem or fitting in with a particular group. For example, a person feeling socially isolated may imitate the speech, dress, and mannerisms of a popular celebrity or influential person to feel more accepted.
- Splitting: Perceiving people or situations as either entirely good or entirely bad, without acknowledging the complexity or nuance of reality. For example, a person with a troubled relationship history may label all their ex-partners as “evil” or “bad,” while viewing themselves as a perpetual victim.
- Regression: Going back to a previous psychological time in one’s life when the present is too anxiety-provoking. For example, discovering that a spouse has been cheating may cause someone to display childlike behaviors such as temper tantrums and emotional outbursts.
- Undoing: Attempting to “make up” for a wrongdoing or negative thought by engaging in acts of kindness or positive behaviors. For example, a person who feels guilty about having a negative thought about their spouse might buy them an expensive gift or make an elaborate dinner to alleviate their guilt.
- Sublimination: Fulfilling a disturbing emotional need by converting it to a positive form of expression. For example, the writer that feels violent impulses may turn those inclinations into well-written murder mysteries.
- Suppression: Consciously pushing unpleasant thoughts or emotions out of conscious awareness. For example, a person who receives a worrying medical diagnosis might choose to focus on work, hobbies, or family instead of dwelling on their health concerns.
- Rationalization: Justifying an unacceptable feeling or behavior in a way that makes it sound logical. For example, a person in need of money may sell their ex-roommates watch after they forgot to pack it when moving out.
- Isolation of Affect: Separating a thought or memory from the associated emotion, allowing the person to think about the event without feeling the painful emotions. For example, a person who experienced a traumatic event may recount the details objectively, without any emotional reaction or distress.
- Reaction Formation: Replacing an unwanted thought or feeling with its opposite. When feeling very depressed a person may suddenly start to act giddy or laugh at inappropriate jokes.
- Fantasy: Retreating into an imaginary world to escape the difficulties and challenges of reality. For example, a person who feels unfulfilled in their career may spend hours daydreaming about a perfect job, where they are highly successful and respected.
- Compensation: Overachieving in one area to make-up for failings in another area. For example, an individual that feels insecure as a male may try to excel in sports or act as if they are extremely confident in order to hide their insecurities.
- Affiliation: Seeking comfort and support from others when faced with a problem or challenging situation. For example, a person who is going through a difficult breakup may spend more time with friends or family members to cope with their feelings of sadness and loneliness.
- Displacement: Directing negative feelings at a target other than their source. For example, after receiving a negative performance evaluation at work, going home, strictly enforcing rules and pointing out flaws in what others are doing.
- Conversion: Transforming emotional distress into physical symptoms. For example, a person who experiences high levels of stress or anxiety may develop headaches, stomachaches, or other unexplained physical ailments.
- Passive-Aggressive: Expressing hostility and anger through neglect or avoidance. Instead of a person telling a colleague how they really feel about them, they don’t respond to their emails or participate in activities in which they have a leadership role.
- Repression: Involuntarily blocking out memories, thoughts, or feelings that are too painful or distressing to confront. For example, a person who experienced childhood abuse may not be able to recall specific details or events from that time.
- Intellectualization: Taking a cold and distant attitude towards something very disturbing. When dealing with the death of a loved one, a person might immerse themselves in the planning and details of the funeral to occupy their mind.
- Symbolization: Representing an unconscious, conflictual thought or emotion through symbols or symbolic actions. For example, a person who harbors resentment towards a family member may frequently wear clothing or accessories that symbolize their feelings of anger or defiance.
- Confirmation Bias: Seeking out and favoring information that supports your own pre-existing beliefs while dismissing or minimizing the importance of contradictory evidence. As a defense mechanism, this allows a person to maintain their worldview or belief system and avoid uncomfortable truths.
- Self-Serving Bias: This involves attributing your own success to internal factors (your hard work) while attributing failures to external factors (like bad luck or someone else’s fault). This defense mechanism helps preserve self-esteem.
- Availability Heuristic: Relying on readily available information, especially vivid or memorable examples, rather than seeking out comprehensive, objective data. As a defense mechanism, this helps you to maximize personal experience and minimize evidence that might be uncomfortable to confront.
- Excessive Optimism Bias: Overestimating the likelihood of positive outcomes and underestimating the likelihood of negative outcomes in order to psychologically avoid facing the truth that things might not work out well for you.
Case Studies and Research Basis
1. Self-Affirmation Theory
We all have a self-identity which contains information about who we are. But what happens when we encounter information that contradicts that self-identity? For example, when a person thinks of themselves as being a really good chess player, but then loses several times in a row to a novice.
According to self-affirmation theory (Steele,1988), this can be quite disturbing. Something must be done to restore the integrity of one’s self-identity.
This sense of self-integrity is:
“…a phenomenal experience of the self . . . as adaptively and morally adequate, that is, competent, good, coherent, unitary, stable, capable of free choice, capable of controlling important outcomes” (Steele, 1988, p. 262).
The self-system can be represented graphically below.
Research has shown that people will engage in a variety of defense mechanisms to restore the integrity of the self. For example, attributing failure to external factors such as bad luck, or minimizing the importance of the event.
2. Defense Mechanisms In Cognitive Processing
Interest in defense mechanisms has waxed and waned in psychological research ever since Freud first proposed their existence in the 1930s (Cramer, 2000).
Two main criticisms of defense mechanisms had to do with the research methodology and the whole idea of unconscious cognitive processes (Lazarus, 2013).
However, over the last several decades, the idea of unconscious processes affecting judgment has become more readily accepted.
“Cognitive psychologists have rediscovered the existence of unconscious mental processes. Virtually every leading cognitive psychologist today accepts the premise that mental processes go on outside of awareness” (Cramer, p. 638).
Although not specifically aimed at identifying motivated unconscious processing, a foundation of support can be found in several areas of research.
Cramer points out that research on implicit memory, priming, and selective attention “provide an important basis for the study of the cognitive processes that are involved in the functioning of defense mechanisms” (p. 639).
3. Masculine Overcompensation
Anyone who has seen their 45-year-old neighbor drive home one day in a new convertible will be familiar with the concept of masculine overcompensation.
Although this kind of anecdotal evidence seems persuasive, and pervasive, researchers prefer to investigate such notions more scientifically.
Enter Willer et al. (2013). Approximately 100 male and female undergraduate students at Cornell University participated in a survey study as part of a sociology class.
After filling out a “gender identity” survey, they were given feedback about their score on a scale of 0-50 (0-25 was the masculine range; 26-50 the feminine range).
Half of the males were given feedback indicating they scored in the feminine range, and half of the females were given feedback indicating they scored in the masculine range.
Participants then responded to additional surveys regarding the Iraq War, homosexuality, and automobiles.
“…Men whose masculinity was threatened reported significantly greater support for the Iraq War and more negative views of homosexuality than did men in the study whose masculinity was not threatened…men whose masculinity was threatened reported viewing the SUV as more desirable…than did unthreatened men” (p. 991).
4. The Nervous Laugh
An ill-timed laugh can be very offensive. It can occur at inappropriate moments such as when an individual has embarrassed themselves, or when witnessing someone else embarrassing themselves.
However, when looked at through the lens of defense mechanisms, the nervous laugh is actually an effective coping response.
Nervous laughter can redirect energy from a negative source to an expressive form that protects the individual from becoming overwhelmed with anxiety.
Although in certain social situations it can come across as awkward at best and rude at its worst, the offense is usually unintentional.
In other contexts, nervous laughter can result from using humor as a defense mechanism.
As explained by Leon Seltzer in an article at Psychology Today,
“…confronting past trauma with humor may be seen as signaling psychological healing. Once we can joke about something terrible that happened to us, we’re indirectly communicating that we survived it and that having integrated it, it no longer need prevent us from getting on with our lives.”
5. Hierarchical Levels of Defense
Not all defense mechanisms are created equal, and not all are maladaptive. In some ways and in some circumstances, defense mechanisms help an individual cope with anxiety and can therefore be considered healthy.
In fact, clinicians have produced a hierarchical arrangement of defense mechanisms that range from adaptive to immature (Di Giuseppe & Perry, 2021).
Hierarchical Levels of Defense:
|Level of Defense
|Specific Defense Mechanisms
|Altruism, Humor, Sublimation
|Displacement, Intellectualization Repression
|Devaluation, Idealization, Omnipotence
|Denial, Projection, Rationalization
|Acting Out, Passive Aggression
|Projection, Distortion, Denial
Although at one point maligned and incapable of being scientifically tested, today’s perspective on the utility of defense mechanisms is quite different.
“More than half century of empirical research has demonstrated the impact of defensive functioning in psychological well-being, personality organization and treatment process-outcome” (Di Giuseppe & Perry, 2021, p. 1).
Defense mechanisms are coping strategies. They involve a distortion of reality that allows an individual to navigate an anxiety-provoking situation.
Initially, researchers were unimpressed with the concept because of methodological shortcomings in experimentation. Flawed procedures did not allow the notion to be tested in a way that instilled confidence.
At the same time however, clinicians considered defense mechanisms a valid and credible construct. It has played a significant role in therapy for decades.
The defense mechanisms can be arranged hierarchically, ranging from those that are adaptive to reflecting immature strategies.
In addition, modern research strategies have been more effective at testing hypotheses generated by the concept of defense mechanisms. Some results have been persuasive and become central tenets in cognitive psychology.
Bowins, B. (2004). Psychological defense mechanisms: A New Perspective. American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 64, 1-26.
Cramer, P. (2000). Defense mechanisms in psychology today: Further processes for adaptation. American Psychologist, 55(6), 637-646.
Di Giuseppe, M., & Perry, J. C. (2021). The hierarchy of defense mechanisms: Assessing defensive functioning with the Defense Mechanisms Rating Scales Q-Sort. Frontiers in Psychology, 12, 718440.
Freud, A. (1937). The Ego and the mechanisms of defense, London: Hogarth Press and Institute of Psycho-Analysis.
Freud, S. (1894). The neuro-psychoses of defence. SE, 3: 41-61.
Freud, S. (1896). Further remarks on the neuro-psychoses of defense. SE, 3: 157-185.
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Paulhus, D. L., Fridhandler, B., & Hayes, S. (1997). Psychological defense: Contemporary theory and research. In R. Hogan, J. A. Johnson, & S. R. Briggs (Eds.), Handbook of Personality Psychology (pp. 543-579). http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/B978-012134645-4/50023-8
Sherman, D. K., & Hartson, K. A. (2011). Reconciling self-protection with self-improvement. Handbook of Self-enhancement and Self-protection, 128, 128-151.
Steele, C. M. (1988). The psychology of self-affirmation: Sustaining the integrity of the self. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 21, pp. 261–302). New York: Academic Press.
Willer, R., Rogalin, C. L., Conlon, B., & Wojnowicz, M. T. (2013). Overdoing gender: A test of the masculine overcompensation thesis. American Journal of Sociology, 118(4), 980-1022.