An Example of What Experts See That Most People Cannot: Defensiveness

What do defense mechanisms have to do with anything?

Posted Nov 29, 2010

I have been examining what, if anything, makes professional judgments different from everyday judgments of personality (see here, for background). This week, my focus turns to special dimensions of personality that can be called "expert dimensions."  These are dimensions of personality that experts perceive and describe that appear to be somewhat different from how ordinary people view one another.

Perhaps the standard-bearer for such expert perception is the study of defense and coping mechanisms. From Sigmund Freud onward, psychologists, psychiatrists, and other experts have been interested in people's mental defenses, yet defensive phenomena seem less talked about in everyday conversation.  For example, there are few trait terms in the English language that describe defensive behavior -- too few terms to mark out a "big trait" such as one of the Big Five traits, for example. 

A group of dedicated experts have studied mental defenses and advocated for their importance in understanding human psychology. Key among these individuals is the psychiatrist George E Vaillant, who has been studying mental defense mechanisms for many years.

In his work, Vaillant has been using a scale of defense mechanisms that is a provisional part of the US mental diagnostic system (the DSM-IV).  Defense mechanisms represent ways of thinking that block out or otherwise manage thoughts, feelings, and motives a person may have that are so unpleasant or threatening that they are difficult to keep directly in mind. 

Some defenses can be very crude and pathological, others can be sophisticated and useful.  The DSM scale of defenses that Vaillant used in one key study recognized five levels of defense mechanisms. (It has been expanded since.)

Among less-good defenses were "Defensive dysregulation" defenses.  Such defenses involve highly distorted thinking such as delutions and denying reality so blatantly as to be out of touch with reality.  A step above that were "Action level" defenses that included passive aggressive behavior and and acting out. These defenses involve acting on feelings rather than stopping to feel and assess them. 

The middle level of the scale included "Disavowel or image-distortion level" defenses (projection and fantasy).

Among healthy people, the "Disavowal level," as currently defined, includes denial, projection, and rationalization. It involves keeping unpleasant thoughts, goals, and impulses out of awareness or misattributing their causes to others. Those are the technical terms.  A less formal but technically accurate description of such defenses was Laura Kipnis' discussion of "blind spots" in her book "How to be a scandal."  Kipnis was discussing how blind spots -- too much disavowal -- might lead a person unknowingly into scandalous behavior. For Kipnis:

Blind spots are the rabbit holes of scandal. They come in a range of models, from mini to deluxe, and we all have them, a little existential joke on humankind (or in some cases, ticking time bomb) nestled at the core of every lonely consciousness. Compounding the situation, it's impossible to know precisely where they are, or other relevant data -- diameter, fallout potential -- since how can you see what you're blind to yourself...

She continues two pages later:

Blind spots -- yes, they're an epidemic, afflicting audience as well as scandalizers...Come on, what's more routine than buttoned-up officials caught in steamy sex scandals and moralizers who don't live up to their own moral codes? Yet every time it happens somehow it's a novelty...

There are disavowals and blind spots, and then, there are highly mature defenses. At the highest level on the DSM-IV's five-part scale were "High adaptive defenses," that included altruism, sublimation, suppression, anticipation, and humor.

In a 2000 article in the American Psychologist, Vaillant drew on Beethoven's life for an example of the healthiest level of mental defenses. Beethoven, at age 31 and in the process of going deaf, was depressed to the point of near-suicide. He neither denied his feelings, however, nor succumbed to them. Rather, over his next two decades he grew out of those feelings, suppressing ideas that were too painful to face, and transforming others into motives for work and sharing with others such that, by the age of 54, although entirely deaf, he felt he could embrace the world with altruistic feeling, and express that embrace at the conclusion of his Ninth symphony with the Ode to Joy.  That expression was presented in terms that the musically sophisticated audiences of Vienna could appreciate -- and they expressed with thunderous applause at the performance of the work.

One need not be a Beethoven, however, to benefit from the use of healthier defenses. Vaillant combined data from participants from two longitudinal studies (Harvard undergraduate men, and a diverse urban group of men), all of whom were evaluated for their defensive style at age 47. The men's defensiveness levels were mostly unrelated to socioeconomic status, IQ, and attained educational level at the time.  The researchers then used the men's level of defensiveness at age 47 to predict how well the group would fare over the next 20 years of their lives (the final sample included about 300 men).

By ages 65 (urban sample) and 75 (college men), men with more adaptive defenses had higher incomes and better social support (as rated by the men's wives) than men with less healthy defenses. The men who had employed healthier defenses were also happier and had more satisfying relationships. Examining only men who were without any disability at age 50, those with more adaptive defenses were more likely to be without disability twenty years later. These effects remained after controlling for other demographic variables.

No one knows exactly why defense mechanisms work as they do, or how they exert their effects, although there are some decent explanations (which are beyond the scope of this post). For whatever reasons, they do appear to have important effects on the outcomes of people's lives.

Experts and other perceptive people exhibit concern with the defense mechanisms that people use -- and those defense mechanisms do appear to be a key life variable.  By comparison, everyday people seem to deemphasize or even neglect this important area of personality.  Regarding my current exploration of what makes expert judgments of personality different from everyday judgments, one difference appears to be just such expert attention to specially defined areas of personality such as defensive behavior. 


"The rabbit hole..." p. 10; " epidemic..." p. 12, from Kipnis, L. (2010). How to become a scandal. Adventures in bad behavior. New York: Metropolitan Books.

Vaillant, G. E. (2000). Adaptive mental mechanisms. American Psychologist, 55, 89-98.

Copyright © 2010 by John D. Mayer