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Defence Mechanisms Defence Mechanisms
by Murray Hunter
2012-12-28 12:19:28
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Defence mechanisms evolved thousands of years ago to protect humankind from the dangers of the environment. They originate from man’s need to hunt, protect, nurture and generally survive on the Earth (Tiger & Fox 1972). When man faced danger, he had two basic choices open to him; fight or flight. This primal defence mechanism is ready to be activated only after a number of very quick physiological changes in the body creating stress and anxiety occur, so the person can make the decision to defend himself or flee from the scene[1].

Living today in a modern society creates stress and anxiety that is sustained in the person much longer than the ‘hunter’ who only dealt with short skirmishes. Anxiety is a primal response to danger and in modern society it builds up in us, something akin to us making regular deposits of money into our savings account. Stress manifests itself with a number of symptoms like high blood pressure, digestional problems and insomnia, which can lead to the danger of blood clots, stroke and heart attack. These are now the highest causes of death in both middle and high income countries (WHO 2004). The effect of stress and anxiety is to hinder concentration, restricting thinking to only immediate problems, without consideration of the long term consequences (De Board 1978, P. 113). Stress and anxiety also leads to a number of behavioral responses which are based on a defence mechanism.

Anxiety today is not externally produced as it was for the hunters. Anxiety comes from within, manifesting subjective dangers with corresponding feelings and emotions over longer periods of time than the hunters. This anxiety is neurotic rather than objectively caused anxiety originating externally. The approaches the psych takes to managing anxiety have also evolved in sophistication over thousands of years and form an important part of our personalities.

Human Personality has a strong influence on every aspect of life. A person continually experiences objects, people and events that create pain, suffering or pleasure, happiness or sadness, with other emotions, that largely go unnoticed during the day (De Board 1978, P. 25). Emotions create various human feelings may originate from either external events, i.e., threats to physical safety, a feeling of pain or pleasure, i.e., rapid sexual arousal, or to a moral issue, i.e., some feeling of guilt (Larsen & Buss, 2005, P. 284). These emotions and feelings can distort perception, where external and internal stimuli become confused and often exaggerated, sometime leading to psychotic behaviors[2], discussed previously. Our psych acts to control and stabilize these emotions so a person can cope with everyday life through a number of defence mechanisms.

Defence mechanisms are psychological strategies that the psych develops to cope with the emotions generated through everyday life (Larsen 2000). They try to preserve a person’s self-image and view of the world. Normality often contains neurotic traits which can be triggered by anxiety and dominate one’s perception over a period of high emotion. In such situations, defence mechanisms can over compensate and develop distortions and misperceptions, preventing productive behavior, making things worse (Cramer 2000). Defence mechanisms used in their extreme take away both psych and physical energy from other tasks which weaken a person, pushing him/her into some degree of psychosis. They can cloud perception and thinking and affect the way problems are seen and approached (Larsen & Buss, 2005, P. 292).

Defence mechanisms can be considered as a group of personality traits that originate in the psych[3] and function to protect a person’s self image and assumptions, values and beliefs that make up his/her view of the world. They act to reduce anxiety, fear, stress and guilt. They defend a person from the painful realizations that will challenge one’s identity. They reduce the inconsistencies between one’s view of self and world and any external evidence that would refute that view. They simplify the complexities of situations that contradict a person’s simple view of reality. Defence mechanisms reduce fear and build security so that a person can live with the dangers and threats in the world.

Therefore defence mechanisms have some influence upon the construction of opportunity, which itself is a desire of a certain reality. Defence mechanisms can obstruct one seeing opportunity and inhibit action out of the fear of uncertainty new opportunities can potentially bring. Defence mechanisms have something to do with how we reconcile the paradox of an opportunity bringing potential success and also the potential fear and uncertainty of failure that goes along with it.

Defence mechanisms can be classified into four levels (Valliant 1977). The first level defences can be considered psychotic where external experiences are distorted in some way to cope with reality. These include denial, distortion and delusional projection, all common in psychotic disorders. The second level defences are immature defenses. They are common in childhood and carry their way through to adulthood in many people. These defenses inhibit a person ability to cope socially and effectively reduce any anxiety. They are common in depressive disorders. These include fantasy, projection, passive aggression, acting out and idealization. Level three defences are neurotic, fairly common in the adult population. These types of defences can destabilize relationships general life. They include displacement, isolation, intellectualization, reaction formation, repression, regression and rationalization. Level four defences are the most common and include altruism, anticipation, humor, identification, introjections, sublimation and suppression. These defence mechanisms are developed by individuals throughout their life and become very unique to a person’s personality. A person using these defences would usually remain productive, being able to control and use his/her emotions to their benefit.

There are numerous more defences that the psych develops against anxiety (A. Freud 1936). Some of the major ones mentioned above are listed in the table below.

Common Defence Mechanisms.

Defence Mechanism

Description and Comments

Acting out

Acting out is a defence mechanism which involves undertaking actions based on unconscious desires that are socially unacceptable. Acting out can be related to regression. Acting out is a loss of self control which will bring guilt and shame later on, thus requiring the use of other defence mechanisms like denial. Acting out may be an unconscious attempt to gain attention through drug addition, temper tantrums, self mutilation, and other anti-social or damaging behaviors. Acting out is the opposite of sublimation.


Altruism is the wish or intention to do good for others without reward. However sometimes altruism occurs out of a motivation to feel good about oneself.


Anticipation is a defence mechanism to reduce anxiety by looking forward to a coming event. Anticipation can be shown either by enthusiasm or feeling ill or sick. People react differently before performing on stage or in a sporting event through the phenomena of stage fright.


Denial is one of the most common defence mechanisms. This involves the refusal to accept the facts or reality, creating arguments against any anxiety forming event, refusing to admit something exists or refusing to perceive something that will cause pain, etc. When a person after being demoted continues to act as if he/she is still in the same position, is an example of denial. Denial aims to keep things out of memory to minimize any potential pain the object, person or event may cause. Denial is also used to put the blame for something on other causes other than oneself to escape responsibility. This is called fundamental attribution error. This is common when external causes are sort to explain a failure that is really caused by the person or group themselves, i.e., externalize the problem.


Devaluation occurs where a person or object creates ambivalent feelings is seen as flawed, not living up to expectations. This creates feelings that the person or object is worthless, fake or phony. Devaluation is the opposite to idealization.


Displacement occurs when something threatening, often a personal aggressive or sexual impulse, is redirected away from its original target onto a non-threatening target, i.e., being told off by a supervisor at work, only to go home and get angry at a spouse. This is usually an unconscious process where anger and/or aggression is built up, so a person can avoid the consequences of being angry or aggressive at the supervisor and let all their anger out at their spouse without the same consequences[4]. This defence attempts to release unacceptable anger, aggression and/or sexual tension, etc.


Distortion is a less functional response to anxiety produced by facts that threaten a person’s self image. This defence mechanism involves reshaping facts to suit a person’s self image. For example, a person failing a driving test may claim to friends that the examiner is unfair.


When some people are put under stress and pain they sometimes withdraw themselves into fantasy (McWilliams 1994, P. 100). Fantasy encumbers desires based on primal instinctual needs (from the id) in mental representations. These become the basis of some behavior (Klein 1948). Fantasies develop in a person’s subjective world when something in the external world that causes pain, stress, fear and unease. Fantasies can also develop in group and organizational situations and can give rise to shared fantasies that will influence organizational functioning, culture (Kets de Vries & Miller 1984, P. 20), policy and decision making (Mitroff & Kilmann 1976). Fantasy can also border on the paranoid where groups develop persecutory group fantasy (deMause 2002, P. 111), for example where executives fear a new boss after their company has been taken over.


Fixation originates from Freud’s psychosexual development theory where a child gets stuck in a particular stage of development. He/she trapped in an earlier stage of development will seek pleasure in immature ways. In adult life a person may not be able to emotionally pass through a crisis and will continue to focus on the issues of that past event. People display fixation when they cannot budge from the attitude, point of view and ideas they hold, resulting in a fixed type of behavior pattern.


Humor is a mature defence mechanism which shows control of emotions, unless it is used in a compulsive or attention seeking manner. Humor is used to lessen the anxiety caused by situations which bring fear or attack self-esteem.


Idealization occurs when groups split and project all exaggerated “ideal” qualities onto a leader (or a leader can do the same to his/her subordinates). This creates a leader that is considered faultless and “superhuman”. Subordinates in such a situation will always agree with their leader and when they have to make decisions themselves will try and emulate their leader’s thinking. When strategies are poorly thought out, there will usually be no disagreement from any subordinates. This often occurs in entrepreneurial start-ups or when a new CEO is appointed in troubled times. This defence mechanism will inhibit innovation greatly (Kets de Vries & Miller 1984, P. 82).


Identification is a defense mechanism which rarely occurs in isolation. This defence mechanism can help people adjust to social situations and culture. It starts in early life where boys may want to be like their fathers, as they wish to have the same patterns, attitudes and beliefs. Some people take on the attributes of people they fear, like a boss as a way to cope with the anxiety generated (Kets de Vries & Miller 1984, P. 140).


Introjection is where external meanings are taken into a person’s psych where it becomes their own meaning. Ferenczi (1916, P. 41), the psychoanalyst and colleague of Freud believed that introjections is an important process in creating personal meaning of the external world, which has great influence on behavior and personality (Freud 1950, P. 89). In a group situation where members wish to identify with the leader will incorporate his/her ideas into their own. This creates very closely knit groups through what is called introjective identification. The traits people introject into themselves will idealize what they want to be. This can be seen in religious identification.

Isolation & Intellectualization

Isolation is a defence mechanism which separates any feeling from a given event, so the person has no emotional response. Intellectualization is a form of isolation where an event is described in a clinical way, without emotional description. These defences are used to distance and detach oneself from any painful emotions and anxiety.

Passive Aggression

Passive aggression is a partly conscious defence mechanism. It has a characteristic negative and passively antagonistic disposition where a person is obstructive, stubbornly resistant in a group or occupational situation. Passive aggression is also characterized by resentment and sulkiness against something or someone. Passive aggression usually occurs as a reaction to competition, resistance against dependency and intimacy.


Projection is a common defence mechanism with some paranoid tendencies. Through projection a person puts all their unwanted and hated traits onto another person, which they come to hate and despise instead of hating themselves. They also don’t admit they have these traits within themselves. Projection is a method to deal with guilt and anxiety by blaming others for what they are responsible for. Projection leaves a person with a self perception of only virtuous and moralistic traits. Projection is the source of prejudice, jealousy and paranoia. Jaques (1955, P. 478) considers projection as a defence against anxiety at the group level to be one of the most powerful forces binding people together.


Rationalization is another common defence mechanism where a person develops a very elaborate explanation to disguise their own intentions or feelings. For example, if a person’s spouse leaves, that person may say the relationship was really long over and they would have separated anyway. Failure at some given task may be explained away by saying that things were not explained clearly, they didn’t have the right tools or there was not enough time, etc. The objective of rationalization is to maintain self-esteem and reduce anxiety from any personal trauma.

Reaction Formation

Reaction formation is an attempt to change an urge a person would have into its opposite impulse. For example where a person has been told off by a superior, instead of using displacement as a defence mechanism, the person will be overly kind to the superior. Reaction formation can lead people to do the opposite of what one might predict they do. However the original emotion will still persist in the sub-conscious. Reaction formation can cause behavior in extreme which hinders the ability to adapt to change (Kets de Vries & Miller 1984, P. 141).


Regression reverts a person back to some child like behavior when self-esteem is threatened. An example of someone reverting to regression as a defence mechanism is shown in J. D. Salinger’s (1951) novel The Catcher on the Rye, where Holden Caulfield, the main character reverts to regressive behavior as a way to cope with the stress and fear of growing up.


It is reported that Freud considered repression as the forerunner of most other defence mechanisms (Larsen & Buss 2005, P. 285). Repression is a defence mechanism that represses anxiety producing thoughts into the sub-conscious. This probably occurs in situations where there are two contradictory beliefs that cause anxiety. For example, ‘I like smoking’ and ‘smoking can cause cancer’ are two contradictory beliefs. The person can repress the fact that smoking can cause cancer to repress any anxiety about smoking. Tavris and Aronson (2007) argue that we use this method (dissonance reduction) to ‘fool’ ourselves about facts so we can live our lives with self-justification, thereby reducing guilt and anxiety generated by our actions.


Somatization is not a common defence mechanism. It occurs when there are some unconscious psychological conflicts that are channeled onto oneself in the form of pain, illness or anxiety.


Splitting is the process where people, objects and events are seen as either all good or all bad, i.e., thinking in extremes. Splitting helps to preserve one’s own “good” self-image by splitting all the bad parts and projecting them onto another (usually weaker) person or group. According to Jaques (1955, P. 479) this is how scapegoating and persecution occurs. For example the Nazis projected all their hatred onto the Jews who could be attacked, abused and exterminated. This is similar to how an organization (and even a country) develops its own myths about heroes and villains. Splitting works alongside projection, idealization and devaluation. Menzies (1960) looked at the use of these defence mechanisms to cope with the anxieties of their work in the nursing profession. Nurses transformed their intra-personal struggle into an interpersonal struggle through splitting irresponsible impulses onto subordinates, treating them hard as a consequence of the blame unconsciously attributed to them.


Sublimation is a very useful defence mechanism as it channels potentially destructive psychic energies and transforms them into more socially accepted psychic energies. People have urges and impulses which are socially destructive and can that focus away from other aspects of life. These can be anger or sexual urges that distract a person. Sublimation is the mechanism that transforms destructive urges into socially accepted urges. For example, the psychic energy from a person’s need to dominate others can be channeled into leadership or entrepreneurship roles.


Suppression is the conscious process of putting off the consideration of doing something, or doing something to suppress any anxiety. An example of this is putting off going to the dentist due to the unpleasantness one anticipates, or in a corporate situation putting off discussions about painful issues of closing a factory, discontinuing a product or making retrenchments, etc.

Maintaining Routines

Organizations develop work routines that have the affect of assisting people avoid risks. For example, when an issue that is uncomfortable and requires taking some risk comes up, the safe way is to pass it up the organizational hierarchy for a decision (Bardwick 1995, P. 27). People use routines to cope with anxiety, fear and uncertainty. This can lead to unproductive or pseudowork where there is emphasis on getting things done through following procedures, rather than accomplishment.


An addiction is a conditioned, reflexive, and compulsive behavior that momentarily reduces stress, i.e., eating, smoking, or drinking (Hollis 2007, P. 67).




[1] When a person is exposed to some sort of external danger arteries near the skin begin to clamp down, muscles begin to tense and blood pressure rapidly rises. The heart begins beating at a rapid rate and blood is redistributed to the limbs, ready for any quick moves. Bowels release to reduce weight and adrenalin is pumped into the blood stream to help the blood clot quickly if any injury occurs.

[2] This is the basis of psychoanalytical theory. Psychoanalysis looks at the whole personality, rather than individual traits, and behavior. Psychoanalytical theories consider object-relations which begin with a person’s relationship with a mother’s breast and develop throughout childhood, and ones basic instinctual needs as the major factors influencing the development of personality. A child develops a world of pleasure and pain, hate and love, where he/she forms their own self view and view of the world. This development continues through life and these mental representations become the way that a person perceives, interprets and constructs their own meaning of the world. A person’s instinctual base develops into a continuum of needs and wants, which becomes fantasized into unconscious schema, creating a subjective world in a person where potential urges and behavior originates. We are interested in this from the point of view as how a person perceives the environment, develops ambitions, sets objectives, develops strategy and reacts to potential opportunities.

[3] According to Freudian psychology defence mechanisms originate from the ego. The need for defence mechanisms occurs when the id (a primal, instinctual pleasure orientated part of the personality that is impulsive) comes in conflict with the super-ego (the social morality aspect of the personality). Un-satisfaction, desire, anxiousness and/or fear will eventually rise to the consciousness and needs to be suppressed by the ego through defence mechanisms to block the id.

[4] However this may create other long term relationship problems with the spouse.



Bardwick. J. M. (1995). Danger in the Comfort Zone: From the Boardroom to the Mailroom – How to Break the Entitlement Habit That’s Killing American business, New York, American Management Association.

Cramer, P. (2000). Defense Mechanisms in Psychology Today: Further Processes for Adaptation, American Psychologist, Vol. 55, pp. 637-646.

De Board, R. (1978). The Psychoanalysis of Organizations: A Psychoanalytical Approach to Behavior in Groups and Organizations, London, Tavistock Publications.

De Mause, L. (2002). The Emotional Life of nations, New York, Karnac.

Ferenczi, S. (1916). Contributions to Psychoanalysis, Boston, Richard Badger.

Freud, A. (1936). The Ego and Mechanisms of Defense, London, Hogarth Press and Institute of Psycho-Analysis.

Freud, S. (1950). Totem and Taboo, London, Ark Edition (1983).

Hollis, J. (2007). Why Good People Do Bad Things: Understanding our darker selves, New York, Gotham.

Jaques, E. (1955). Social Systems as a Defence Against Persecutory and Depressive Anxiety, In Klein, M., Heimann, P. and Money-Kyrle, R., (Eds.), New Directions in Psychoanalysis, London, Tavistock Publications.

Kets de Vries, F. R. and Miller, D. (1984). The Neurotic Organisation, Diagnosing and Changing Counterproductive Styles of Management, San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, Inc.

Klein, M. (1948). Contributions to Psychoanalysis 1921-45, London, Hogarth Press.

Larsen, R. J. (2000). Toward a Science of Mood Regulation, Psychological Inquiry, Vol. 11, pp. 129-141.

Larsen, R. J. and Buss, D. M. (2005). Personality Psychology, 2nd Ed., New York, McGraw-Hill.

McWilliams, N. (1994). Psychoanalytic diagnosis: Understanding personality structure in the clinical process, New York, Guilford Press.

Menzies, I. E. P. (1960). A case-Study in the functioning of Social Systems as a Defence Against Anxiety: A Report on a Study of the Nursing Service of a General Hospital, Human Relations, Vol. 13, pp. 95-121.

Mitroff, I. I. and Kilmann, R. H. (1976). Organization Stories: An Approach to the Design and Analysis of Organizations Through Myths and Stories, In: Kilmaan, R. H., Pondy, L. R. and Slevin, D. P. (Eds.), The Management of Organization Design Strategies and Implementation, New York, Elsevier/North Holland.

Salinger, J. D. (1951). The Catcher on the Rye, Boston, Little, Brown & Co.

Tarvis, C. and Aronson, E., (2007). Mistakes Were Made (but not by me): Why We Justify Our Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions and Harmful Acts, London, Pinter and Martin.

Tiger, L. and Fox, R. (1971). The Imperial Animal, New York, Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Valliant, G. E. (1977). Adaptation to Life, Boston, Little, Brown & Co.

World Health Organization (2004). The Top Ten causes of Death, http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs310/en/index.html, (accessed 5th November 2009).


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Emanuel Paparella2012-12-28 14:54:10
As acknowledged in the footnotes of this intriguing piece by Professor Hunter, defense mechanisms are part of the overall Freudian theory which divides the psyche into the id, the ego and the super-ego. Everything originates naturally in the id which to a certain extent we share with animals in the primeval jungle where survival of the fittest takes place, but then the idealized ego, the super-ego attempts to control the struggle between the pleasure principle located in the id and the egoor what we think we are. But who are we? Back to Socrates “know thyself.”

Ingenious theory indeed and apparently, as Freud would have it, a natural psychic phenomenon that has taken thousands upon thousands of years to develop in mankind. Some feminists would claim that it has developed quite differently in women who were not fierce hunters primordially, but that is another story altogether.
What remains puzzling in my mind, however, with all due respect to Freud and his psychological theories, is this simple inquiry: where would Freud and his Freudian cohorts place altruism within their elaborate theory, especially the altruism exhibited by a saint? Does that too carry forward human evolution or is it against nature as Freud seems to imply at times especially when it comes to the role of religion which is also a primordial institution as hunting is?

In Freudian terms, I suppose, the question can be framed thus: if repression and the consequent sublimation is a defense mechanism to avoid acting naturally, as a psychopath and a natural born killer would, is it also something natural and beneficial to human evolution or something unnatural? Are men, let us exclude women for the moment…, natural born killers on a constant hunt and competition who must continually repress their primal instincts to remain civilized and ethical? Were the hippies of the 60s who were reading Eros and Civilization by Herbert Marcuse wrong in assuming that the age of Aquarius was upon us and that war and injustice would soon be sublimated into competitive but positive sports?

Finally, to come closer home, should sublimation as a defense mechanism be applied to the modern form of hunting, to entrepreneurship and making money at any cost and a dehumanizing form of capitalism as critiqued by Marx? Ah, civilization and our discontents…Much to ponder here beyond repression and the natural Randian mode of behaving.

To come even closer home, most Republicans here seem to have bought the whole Freudian bag and believe that millionaires, the great hunters who carry forward social Darwinism, are the real benefactors of mankind and ought to be allowed to have accounts in the Caiman islands and in Swiss Banks and protected from taxation applying to ordinary people. Could it be that Rousseau had it wrong in believing that we are all born innocent and without original sin and society corrupts us? Could it be that, as Socrates surmised, man has a great capacity to deceive himself? One wonders.

Murray Hunter2012-12-28 16:37:43
Dear Prof Paparella. Thank you for the conclusion to the article. You have rounded it off very well.

Emanuel Paparella2012-12-28 17:50:58
Dear Professor Hunter:
Neverthless I remain puzzled and hopefully await some replies, by anybody who is also puzzled and cares to join in the conversation, to the questions I posed, for I have not found them among Freudians or Darwinians or Marxists, those who greatly influenced and "enlightened" the 20th century.

Leah Sellers2012-12-29 06:03:45
Mr. Murray,
Really good article, Sir.
Thank you.
Brother Emanuel, the Sacred and Profane exist simultaneously Cosmically and Primodially, dear Sir.
Purely greedy and selfish free-wheeling-and-dealing Predatory Capitalism eats away at and cannibalizes the very Core of any Individual and Civiliztion. It becomes hierarchically and systemically Malevolent and destructive unless Balanced by benevolent Altruistic Sublime-mation which includes the Needs of the Other - not just the Self. I beleive that Christ's Knowledge of this Individual and Societal dis-ease was just one of many Reasons that he was killed.
Also, Socrates was correct in his assertion, because the Great Deceiver is Denial - repressed and suppressed Inner Wisdom, Exteranl Lessons and Experiences and Enlightened Insights - which Guide us toward the Looking Glass - toward Knowing Ourselves (the Light and Shadow of OurSelves).
Thank you for your open inquiries and and wonderful observations, as well, dear Sir.

Emanuel Paparella2012-12-29 15:43:12
Point well taken Leah and thanks for sincerely addressing my queries. I'll take Jung any time over Freud, and I suspect you would too, for indeed not by pleasure or money alone does Man live...

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