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Defense Mechanisms

Why People Are So Often the Opposite of What They Appear

An introduction to the ego defense of reaction formation.

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[Article revised on 4 May 2020.]

An important method of transforming uncomfortable or unacceptable feelings into something more manageable is 'reaction formation', which is the superficial adoption and exaggeration of ideas and impulses that are diametrically opposed to one's own.

For example, a man unconsciously finds himself attracted to another man, but consciously finds this attraction flatly unacceptable. To manage the anxiety arising from this conflict, he over-acts the part of the straight or macho man, going out for several pints with the lads, speaking in a gruff voice, peppering his speech with loud profanities, banging his fists on the counter, flirtingconspicuously with the barmaid, and so on.

Other examples of reaction formation include:

  • The teenage boy who bullies the girl or boy he’s attracted to.
  • The immigrant who becomes more native than the natives.
  • The rich student who attends and even organizes anti-capitalist rallies.
  • The alcoholic who extolls the virtues of abstinence.
  • The absent father who occasionally returns to spoil and smother his children.
  • The angry person who behaves with exaggerated calm and courtesy.
  • The politician or religious leader who advocates or legislates against his secret vice—although, depending on the level of consciousness, this could be a case of hypocrisy rather than reaction formation.

A special case of reaction formation is that of two people who matter deeply to each other, but fall into a pattern of arguing or disengaging to dampen their mutual desire and dependency. B might accept that A is very important to her, but A does not accept this of B. A starts arguing to push back his feelings for B, while B argues back to cope with A’s stand-offish behaviour, that is, to protect her ego, vent her frustration, and temper her feelings for A. Until, of course, she gets fed up and leaves.

Another special case of reaction formation is that of the person who hates a particular group of people but loves those members of the group with whom he is personally acquainted. This helps to explain such phenomena as the misogynist who is devoted to his wife or the racist who marries a colored person.

Behaviour that results from reaction formation can be recognized as such on the basis that it tends to have something of a manic edge, that is, it tends to be exaggerated, compulsive, and inflexible.

More importantly, perhaps, is that the person's behaviour does not seem to ‘add up' in the context of their bigger picture, and may therefore appear to be groundless, irrational, or idiosyncratic.

In many cases, the behaviour is also dystonic, that is, out of keeping with the person's ideal self-image, and therefore damaging to their deep-seated goals and ambitions andultimatelyto their sense of worth.

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

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