The Psychology of Self-Deception
A short, sharp look into some of our most important ego defenses.
Posted August 28, 2015
In psychoanalytic theory, ego defenses are unconscious processes that we deploy to diffuse the fear and anxiety that arise when who we think we are or who we think we should be (our conscious ‘superego’) comes into conflict with who we really are (our unconscious ‘id’).
For instance, at an unconscious level a man may find himself attracted to another man, but at a conscious level he may find this attraction flatly unacceptable. To diffuse the anxiety that arises from this conflict, he may deploy one or several ego defenses. For example, (1) he might refuse to admit to himself that he is attracted to this man. Or (2) he might superficially adopt ideas and behaviours that are diametrically opposed to those of a stereotypical homosexual, such as going out for several pints with the lads, banging his fists on the counter, and peppering his speech with loud profanities. Or (3) he might transfer his attraction onto someone else and then berate him for being gay (young children can teach us much through playground retorts such as ‘mirror, mirror’ and ‘what you say is what you are’). In each case, the man has used a common ego defense, respectively, repression, reaction formation, and projection.
Repression can be thought of as ‘motivated forgetting’: the active, albeit unconscious, ‘forgetting’ of unacceptable drives, emotions, ideas, or memories. Repression is often confused with denial, which is the refusal to admit to certain unacceptable or unmanageable aspects of reality. Whereas repression relates to mental or internal stimuli, denial relates to external stimuli. That said, repression and denial often work together, and can be difficult to disentangle.
Repression can also be confused with distortion, which is the reshaping of reality to suit one’s inner needs. For instance, a person who has been beaten black and blue by his father no longer recalls these traumatic events (repression), and instead sees his father as a gentle and loving man (distortion). In this example, there is a clear sense of the distortion not only building upon but also reinforcing the repression.
Reaction formation is the superficial adoption—and, often, exaggeration—of emotions and impulses that are diametrically opposed to one’s own. A possible high-profile case of reaction formation is that of a particular US congressman, who, as chairman of the Missing and Exploited Children’s Caucus, introduced legislation to protect children from exploitation by adults over the Internet. The congressman resigned when it later emerged that he had been exchanging sexually explicit electronic messages with a teenage boy. Other, classic, examples of reaction formation include the alcoholic who extolls the virtues of abstinence and the rich student who attends and even organizes anti-capitalist rallies.
Projection is the attribution of one’s unacceptable thoughts and feelings to others. Like distortion, projection necessarily involves repression as a first step, since unacceptable thoughts and feelings need to be repudiated before they can be attributed to others. Classic examples of projection include the envious person who believes that everyone envies him, the covetous person who lives in constant fear of being dispossessed, and the person with fantasies of infidelity who suspects that his partner is cheating on him.
Just as common is splitting, which can be defined as the division or polarization of beliefs, actions, objects, or people into good and bad by selectively focusing on either their positive or negative attributes. This is often seen in politics, for instance, when left-wingers caricature right-wingers as selfish and narrow-minded, and right-wingers caricature left-wingers as irresponsible and self-serving hypocrites. Other classic examples of splitting are the religious zealot who divides people into blessed and damned, and the child of divorcees who idolizes one parent while shunning the other. Splitting diffuses the anxiety that arises from our inability to grasp a complex and nuanced state of affairs by simplifying and schematizing it so that it can more readily be processed or accepted.
Splitting also arises in groups, with people inside the group being seen in a positive light, and people outside the group in a negative light. Another phenomenon that occurs in groups is groupthink, which is not strictly speaking an ego defense, but which is so important as to be worthy of mention. Groupthink arises when members of a group unconsciously seek to minimize conflict by failing to critically test, analyse, and evaluate ideas. As a result, decisions reached by the group tend to be more irrational than those that would have been reached by any one member of the group acting alone. Even married couples can fall into groupthink, for instance, when they decide to take their holidays in places that neither wanted, but thought that the other wanted. Groupthink arises because members of a group are afraid both of criticizing and of being criticized, and also because of the hubristic sense of confidence and invulnerability that arises from being in a group. Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once remarked, ‘It is a good thing that I did not let myself be influenced.’ In a similar vein, historian Edward Gibbon wrote that ‘…solitude is the school of genius … and the uniformity of a work denotes the hand of a single artist’. In short, a camel is a horse designed by a committee.
An ego defense similar to splitting is idealization. Like the positive end of splitting, idealization involves overestimating the positive attributes of a person, object, or idea while underestimating its negative attributes. More fundamentally, it involves the projection of our needs and desires onto that person, object, or idea. A paradigm of idealization is infatuation, when love is confused with the need to love, and the idealized person’s negative attributes are glossed over or even imagined as positive. Although this can make for a rude awakening, there are few better ways of relieving our existential anxiety than by manufacturing something that is ‘perfect’ for us, be it a piece of equipment, a place, country, person, or god.
If in love with someone inaccessible, it might be more convenient to intellectualize our love, perhaps by thinking of it in terms of idealization! In intellectualization, uncomfortable feelings associated with a problem are repressed by thinking about the problem in cold and abstract terms. I once received a phone call from a junior doctor in psychiatry in which he described a recent in-patient admission as ‘a 47-year-old mother of two who attempted to cessate her life as a result of being diagnosed with a metastatic mitotic lesion’. A formulation such as ‘…who tried to kill herself after being told that she is dying of cancer’ would have been better English, but all too effective at evoking the full horror of this poor lady’s predicament.
Intellectualization should not be confused with rationalization, which is the use of feeble but seemingly plausible arguments either to justify something that is painful to accept (‘sour grapes’) or to make it seem ‘not so bad after all’ (‘sweet lemons’). For instance, a person who has been rejected by a love interest convinces himself that she rejected him because she did not share in his ideal of happiness (sour grapes), and also that her rejection is a blessing in disguise in that it has freed him to find a more suitable partner (sweet lemons).
While no one can altogether avoid deploying ego defenses, some ego defenses are thought to be more ‘mature’ than others, not only because they involve some degree of insight, but also because they can be adaptive or useful. If a person is angry at his boss, he may go home and kick the dog, or he may instead go out and play a good game of tennis. The first instance (kicking the dog) is an example of displacement, the redirection of uncomfortable feelings towards someone or something less important, which is an immature ego defense. The second instance (playing a good game of tennis) is an example of sublimation, the channelling of uncomfortable feelings into socially condoned and often productive activities, which is a much more mature ego defense.
There are a number of mature ego defenses like sublimation that can be substituted for the more primitive ones. Altruism, for instance, can in some cases be a form of sublimation in which a person copes with his anxiety by stepping outside himself and helping others. By concentrating on the needs of others, people in altruistic vocations such as medicine or teaching may be able to permanently push their own needs into the background. Conversely, people who care for a disabled or elderly person may experience profound anxiety and distress when this role is suddenly removed from them.
Another mature ego defense is humour. By seeing the absurd or ridiculous aspect of an emotion, event, or situation, a person is able to put it into a less threatening context and thereby diffuse the anxiety that it gives rise to. In addition, he is able to share, and test, his insight with others in the benign and gratifying form of a joke. If man laughs so much, it is no doubt because he has the most developed unconscious in the animal kingdom. The things that people laugh about most are their errors and inadequacies; the difficult challenges that they face around personal identity, social standing, sexual relationships, and death; and incongruity, absurdity, and meaninglessness. These are all deeply human concerns: just as no one has ever seen a laughing dog, so no one has ever heard of a laughing god.
Further up the maturity scale is asceticism, which is the denial of the importance of that which most people fear or strive for, and so of the very grounds for anxiety and disappointment. If fear is, ultimately, for oneself, then the denial of the self removes the very grounds for fear. People in modern societies are more anxious than people in traditional or historical societies, no doubt because of the strong emphasis that modern societies place on the self as an independent and autonomous agent.
In the Hindu Bhagavad Gita, the god Krishna appears to Arjuna in the midst of the Battle of Kurukshetra, and advises him not to succumb to his scruples but to do his duty and fight on. In either case, all the men on the battlefield are one day condemned to die, as are all men. Their deaths are trivial, because the spirit in them, their human essence, does not depend on their particular incarnations for its continued existence. Krishna says, ‘When one sees eternity in things that pass away and infinity in finite things, then one has pure knowledge.’
There has never been a time when you and I have not existed, nor will there be a time when we will cease to exist … the wise are not deluded by these changes.
There are a great number of ego defenses, and the combinations and circumstances in which we use them reflect on our personality. Indeed, one could go so far as to argue that the self is nothing but the sum of its ego defenses, which are constantly shaping, upholding, protecting, and repairing it.
The self is like a cracked mask that is in constant need of being pieced together. But behind the mask there is nobody at home.
While we cannot entirely escape from ego defenses, we can gain some insight into how we use them. This self-knowledge, if we have the courage for it, can awaken us to ourselves, to others, and to the world around us, and free us to express our full potential as human beings.
The greatest oracle of the ancient world was the oracle at Delphi, and inscribed on the forecourt of the temple of Apollo at Delphi was a simple two-word command:
Neel Burton is author of Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception and other books.