Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Self-Deception II: Splitting

Human beings are not rational, but are rationalizing animals.

[Article revised on 4 May 2020.]

In the second part of my series on self-deception, I shall be looking at the ego defense mechanism of splitting. If you missed the first part (on rationalization), you can find it here.

Splitting is a very common ego defense mechanism. It can be defined as the division or polarization of beliefs, actions, objects, or persons into good and bad by focusing selectively on their positive or negative attributes.

This is often seen in politics, for example, when left-wing politicians think of right-wing politicians as narrow-minded and self-interested, and right-wing politicians think of left-wing politicians as self-righteous hypocrites—or some such.

Other examples of splitting are the hospital patient who sees the physicians as intelligent and hardworking but the nurses as lazy and incompetent, the religious zealot who classifies everyone as either blessed or damned, and the child of divorcees who idolizes one parent while locking out the other.

An example of splitting in literature can be found in JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. The main protagonist, Holden Caulfield, is mystified by adulthood. To cope with his fear of becoming an adult, he thinks of adulthood as a world of entirely bad things such as superficiality and hypocrisy (‘phoniness’), and of childhood as a world of entirely good things such as innocence, curiosity, and honesty. He tells his younger sister Phoebe that he imagines childhood as an idyllic field of rye in which children romp and play, and himself as the ‘catcher in the rye’ who stands on the edge of a cliff, catching the children as they threaten to fall (and presumably die/become adults).

Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around - nobody big, I mean - except me. And I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff - I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I'd do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it's crazy, but that's the only thing I'd really like to be.

Miguel de Cervantes uses splitting to great comical effect in Don Quixote. In this novel, the self-appointed and self-styled knight-errant Don Quixote de la Mancha guides us through a world that he has repopulated with heroes and villains, princesses and harlots, giants and dwarves—with the heroes being the greatest, the villains the cruellest, the ladies the fairest and most virtuous, and so on. “Take care, your worship,” cries Sancho Panza, Don Quixote’s peasant-turned-squire, “those things over there are not giants but windmills.”

Splitting diffuses the anxiety that arises from our inability to grasp the nuances and complexities of a given situation or state of affairs by simplifying and schematizing it. In addition, it reinforces our idea of ourselves as good and virtuous by effectively discounting and even demonizing all those who do not share in our views and values.

On the other hand, such a compartmentalization of opposites leaves us with a distinctly distorted picture of reality, and a restricted range of thoughts and emotions. It also affects our ability to attract and maintain relationships, first, because it is tedious and unbecoming, and, second, because it can easily flip, with friends and lovers being thought of as personified virtue and then, whenever it becomes more convenient, personified vice.

Finally, it is worth noting that fairy tales and children’s stories feature a number of sharp splits, for example, good and evil, heroes and villains, fairies and monsters; as does religion with heaven and hell, angels and demons, saints and sinners…

In contrast, some of the most compelling characters in adult literature, such as the Achilles or the Odysseus of Homer and the Cleopatra of Shakespeare, contain large measures of both good and bad, with the one being intimately connected to the other.

If you have any examples of splitting, real or fictional, that you would like to share, please do so in the comments section.

Neel Burton is author of Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception and other books.

More from Neel Burton M.D.
More from Psychology Today