There is much talk about cognitive heuristics and biases in the Rationality community, whereas psychodynamic/psychoanalytic perspectives of psychology tend to be dismissed as "bad science". Now, I will agree that some Freudian ideas like penis envy and Oedipus complex are silly -- but that doesn't necessarily mean that nothing useful can be salvaged from the wreck. In particular, today I want to highlight the concept of psychological defense mechanisms developed by Sigmund Freud and his daughter Anna, and suggest how they might be of interest to rationalists.[1]

According to Freud's theory, our unconscious minds are host to the continual battles between the "id" (our primal, pleasure-driven aspect), the "ego" (our decision-making aspect, mindful of social reality) and the "superego" (our moral compass). These internal conflicts, when prolonged, result in anxiety and other unpleasant emotions like guilt. In order to get rid of this anxiety, we rely on "defense mechanisms", which are feats of mental gymnastics that work through self-deception. And since self-deception can be an obstacle to epistemic and instrumental rationality, it should be clear why we should at least be aware of defense mechanisms.

Here are some of the most common defense mechanisms, taken from Weiten, Dunn & Hammer (2015).[2]

  1. Repression: keeping distressing thoughts and feelings below your conscious awareness. Examples: Amber forgot the name of someone whom she really hates. Billy doesn't remember the time he nearly got killed while serving in Afghanistan.
  2. Projection: attributing your own thoughts and feelings to someone else. Examples: Claire feels sexual tension with a colleague, which she attributes to the colleague's motive to seduce her. Dennis doesn't like his boss, but tells others that he actually likes the boss -- it's just that the boss doesn't like Dennis.
  3. Displacement: re-directing emotions from their original source to a substitute target. Examples: Emily had a rough day at work, so she unleashes her anger onto her husband and cat. Frank has been disciplined by his parents, and takes his anger out on his little sister.
  4. Reaction formation: behaving in a way that is the opposite of what your true feelings would imply. Examples: Gemma unconsciously resents her child, so she spoils the child with gifts. Harry speaks out against homosexuality, but has latent homosexual impulses of his own.
  5. Regression: reverting to immature behavioral patterns. Examples: Irma has trouble finding a new job, but boasts about her massive talent in an exaggerated way. Jason throws a temper tantrum when he doesn't get his way.
  6. Rationalization: creating false yet plausible excuses to justify socially unacceptable behavior. Examples: Kate binge-watches Netflix instead of studying because "studying more wouldn't help her anyway". Leon cheats someone in a business transaction because "everybody does it".
  7. Intellectualization: looking at difficulties in a detached and abstract way to suppress your emotional reactions. Examples: Molly has been diagnosed with a terminal illness, so she tries to learn as much as possible about the disease's details and treatment. Nathan is deep in debt due to overspending, so he creates a complex spreadsheet of how long it would take to repay with different interest rates and payment options.
  8. Identification: boosting your self-esteem by forming alliances (real or imaginary) with some person or group. Examples: Ophelia identifies with a number of famous rock stars, movie stars and athletes. Peter is an insecure college student who joined a fraternity to bolster his self-worth.
  9. Denial: refusing to acknowledge the painful realities in your life. Examples: Quinn is failing a class required for graduation, yet allows her family to plan a trip to her graduation. Ray abuses alcohol but refuses to admit he has a problem.
  10. Fantasy: fulfilling your wishes and impulses in your imagination. Examples: Samantha is unpopular but imagines that she has a large network of outgoing and popular friends. Tim is being bothered by a bully, but instead of taking action to stop it he daydreams about killing the bully.
  11. Undoing: trying to counteract feelings of guilt through acts of atonement. Examples: Ursula compliments her mother's appearance each time after she insults her mother. Vernor dislikes his professor, so he gives the professor an apple as a gift.
  12. Overcompensation: compensating for deficiencies (real or imagined) by focusing on or exaggerating positive characteristics. Examples: Wilma is a transfer student who hasn't made new friends, so she focuses on doing well in class. Xavier strives for status, power and wealth as ways to cover up his feelings of inferiority.

This list is not exhaustive; other defense mechanisms include isolation, introjection, reversal, splitting, acting out, passive-aggression, and sublimation, for example.[3]

What unites these various defense mechanisms is that they are common even in psychologically healthy people (akin to how all humans are vulnerable to cognitive bias), but can become problematic when we rely on them excessively. Moreover, defense mechanisms play a prominent role in defensive coping, which is a common albeit usually counterproductive and maladaptive response to stress. As coping strategies, they shield us from uncomfortable emotions like anxiety, guilt, anger, and dejection -- but this comes at the price of distorting our perceptions of reality, often in self-serving ways. Furthermore, they rarely provide actual solutions to our problems, and ironically may increase anxiety.

A superior alternative is to use constructive coping techniques. These are action-oriented, realistic, and require self-control. For example, when you're experiencing stress or burnout, you could try to regulate your emotions by exercising, meditating, writing about your experiences in a personal journal, or forgiving others. You could try to solve the problem that caused the stress by brainstorming solutions, seeking social support, or improving your time management. Finally, you could try to change your appraisal (evaluation) of the situation by reinterpreting events in a positive way, using humor, or avoiding negative self-talk like catastrophizing.

Question for discussion: How would you suggest we use the idea of defense mechanisms in theory or practice?[4]


[1] I was surprised that this topic hasn't been discussed explicitly on LW before.

[2] "Psychology Applied to Modern Life: Adjustment in the 21st Century" -- I have a summary with notes of this book on my blog, here.

[3] See the Wikipedia article.

[4] Scott Alexander seems skeptical but admits it can sometimes be useful.


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22 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 3:24 AM

I'm usually skeptical of psychology, but this bit startled me awake:

Emily had a rough day at work, so she unleashes her anger onto her husband and cat.

It looks like we found that elusive beast: an example of human behavior that doesn't seem explainable by optimization (for goals, PR, evolutionary goals or anything else). It's a pure negative yet people do it all the time. I don't know what to make of it, does anyone have ideas?

The general function of anger seems to be a bargaining tactic aimed at making others treat you better or gaining a larger share of resources. With that in mind I can think of a few plausible explanations for people unleashing anger from work onto family members:

  1. For some reason (evolutionary or physiological) it takes time for anger to dissipate, and this is a side effect of that.
  2. It's a deniable, low risk way to demand additional concessions on top of an existing arrangement. If the other party gives in, it might become a new norm, and if they don't, afterwards you can say "sorry, it was just work; I didn't mean it."
  3. It's a way to test how much the other person cares about you, or more generally what you can get away with, for future reference. By having a plausible excuse to be angry you can avoid coming across as crazy or unreasonable.
  4. You're signaling actual adversity, a reduction in expected future resources, and demanding concessions based on that.

Perhaps an even simpler explanation: In the EEA, there was no "work" and "home", and if you were angry with someone, they were almost always nearby. (As a thought experiment, if Emily's husband came to visit her at work while she was arguing with her boss, I imagine Emily would sooner try to rope her husband into her side of the argument than take out her anger on her husband.)

I've been confused by anger for awhile, or at least several common contexts in which it comes up. My assumption is that it was useful in a bunch of circumstances for some reasons (such as nature's precommitment device, a source of motivation, and dominance contests), and initially there were fewer social strategies available in which anger would be anti-helpful, and most of the maladaptive instances of it weren't as maladaptive).

Related thing: once, someone was really mean to a friend of mine. This came after a very bad day, and it was one thing too many, and my friend shut down, not really able to do anything, completely overwhelmed. By contrast, I got angry, and wanted to punish the person who was being cruel.

And this is interesting a) because anger seemed like a useful thing to have to counterbalance the overwhelmed feeling (it could give you more motivation to stick up for yourself). But, also, what is the totally shut down when overwhelmed behavior doing in the first place? That seems super pointless. It makes sense that you can't handle that many things, but why can't you just, like, focus on one particular thing and get that done, you know, like you'd probably want to have done anyhow?

(Pixar's Inside Out hypothesizes that Sadness is there to arouse sympathy in others and get support, but that just raises more questions)

But, also, what is the totally shut down when overwhelmed behavior doing in the first place? That seems super pointless.

Straightforwardly this seems to be a submission behavior. I'm not sure where it originated but social mammals seem to universally exhibit behaviors to submit to the aggression of conspecifics. Submission is often useful for surviving aggression that might otherwise result in injury or death.

Seems also like the "playing dead" behaviour. If you're under attack and aren't going to summon/indicate allies (via sadness) or enforce your boundary yourself (via anger) or appease the attacker (via submission), another option is to give up on active response and hope that if you play dead just right, they'll lose interest for some reason. Many attackers' goals are better served by a responsive opponent; and attacking someone dead is both potentially unhealthy and no fun.

Anger about asserting your rights

Sometimes people are just dumb, and repeatedly do things that don't seem to accomplish anything because they don't know how to do anything better (because they don't understand why they're doing it in the first place). In other words, yes, there has to be a reason for them doing it, no, it shouldn't be expected to be a good reason or to stand up to reflection.

In my personal experience, "I'm feeling cranky at innocent parties because of rough day" feels like a response to having less cognitive resources to spend on whatever is being asked of me. It's the kind of thing where if it's not too bad, "hey, I'm really not up to this. I had a rough day and need some space or gentle handling" would feel like an attractive alternative. However sometimes even coming up with that is difficult, so the temptation is to take the easy option of lashing out which communicates the same thing ("either give me my space or walk on egg shells, because I don't want to deal with more shit when my plate is already full") in a much more hostile manner. "Is it worth the costs of being hostile?" is the relevant question, but people often run into limits of just being overwhelmed and not being able to actually compute all the answers before picking a choice and running with it.

Does that help answer your question, or am I trying to explain the wrong part?

What's the evolutionary reason for needing gentle handling after a rough day then? It's a distinct emotion that evolved but I can't understand what it's for.

It feels like the same kind of reason that you need to be gentle with your body after running a marathon. I could try to be more specific about what might be going on that makes it difficult to keep it up, but the point is that it seems to be a fundamentally difficult to remain unfatigued and if you don't slow down when fatigued you're not going to move very well and are likely to break something.

Are you asking more "why can't you mentally run unlimited marathons in a row without slowing down" or more "what damage do you risk doing when continuing through 'mental fatigue' that makes it something you have to heed?"?

Does every fact about human physiology & psychology need to be directly evolutionarily beneficial, though? I would expect that some things are harmful side effects of other beneficial things, some things are harmful but not-that-bad overall and not totally selected out, and some things are just due to constraints which can't easily be overcome. I don't think every frailness and vulnerability that human bodies have is evolutionarily beneficial; I don't see why that would be true of human minds, either.

Getting intensely angry probably involves activating a lot of systems in your body to get ready for fighting - how quickly do those systems calm themselves down? How quickly was it correct for them to switch back to everything-is-peaceful mode when we were more like chimpanzees?

Put another way, it makes a lot more sense that humans stay in states too long if we find out that it's a lot easier to make the derivative of that state react to evidence than the thing itself.

Optimizing for survival: that person needs to discharge their cognitive dissonance (manifesting as hurt feelings or stress) in order to return to functional baseline, but can't do that on the original cause for any number of reasons: will get disciplined, fired (at work or school), will be responded to or threatened with physical violence, etc.

So they discharge it onto someone/something else where the consequences are distant or non-existent. E.g. Emily's husband may shrug it off, or it may cause cracks in their relationship that will later cause them to separate (but of course she will have a much harder time thinking through that in the moment).

(I'm trying to be more concise in my writing and communication; let me know if you want clarification!)

Vernor doesn't give the professor an apple because he dislikes the professor per se, but because he feels guilty about his dislike for the professor, which he tries to "fix" by giving a gift -- this works exactly because giving a gift usually indicates liking someone (putting aside other motives, such as ingratiation).

A different example of the "Undoing" defense mechanism would be an abusive alcoholic father who buys his kids lots of Christmas presents (see the sources here and here).

In psychoanalytic theory, these various phenomena are related in that they serve the function of protecting one's ego. But if you think that's a poor way of conceptualizing them, I'd be curious how you think we could do better.

Edit: For example, gworley's comment conceptualizes them as defending one's prior probability.

Question for discussion: How would you suggest we use the idea of defense mechanisms in theory or practice?

It's definitely important to keep from messing up big, but I think it's often underestimated how much value there is to be had in noticing and changing defensive responses when you aren't stressed and burned out. When you're burned out, it's often tough to figure out what you want to do instead because it means adding another problem to solve.

When you're more or less "okay" though, defensive responses are so much easier to change because they're likely not there out of necessity but rather just "hadn't noticed yet". If you look closely, they're still all over the place and the value of non-defensive responses adds up.

The strategy I suggest involves noticing whether you're being defensive no matter what, asking yourself whether you're "okay" and can afford to not be defensive, to do it when you can afford it, and when you feel like you can't afford to do without defensiveness to do it without shame and with an active awareness of what you're losing, what conditions would cause you to change tactics, and highlighting it for what it is so that it can be contained. This way the easy changes become easier (because you know you always have the option of backing off), and failure becomes easier to recover from (because you're not digging yourself deeper trying to avoid the inevitable, or failing to prepare for it properly).

Not sure if this was intended as part of the discussion on fake frameworks, but it feels very similar. Whatever is the right way to handle fake frameworks like e.g. the MTG color wheel post, is probably also the right way to handle Freudian defense mechanisms.

Promoted to frontpage.

Thanks for posting this. I would be surprised if there hadn't been significant empirical investigation into these claims, but I imagine it would take a lot of work to try to figure out the state of evidence on each of these claims.

Why? You can just start looking at the people all around you and notice whether they're doing these things. In Circles you can see people do many of these things constantly.

I tend to think of defense mechanisms like the ones you describe as part of the way the mind learns to deal with disagreement between expectation and reality, only rather than updating on information about reality your mind protects your expectations from it. This is sort of like protecting your prior by manipulating new information so that the posterior doesn't change much if at all. Learning how to break and live without defense mechanisms is something I view as the primary method of action in self-help.

I do think it is very useful being able to identify these strategies as they occur in our mind. On the related subject of dealing with thoughts themselves (which are in many cases the cause of the emotion) in a healthy manner I have found the book White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts by Daniel Wegner to be extremely useful.

In that case in what sense does he dislike his professor. From your example, him disliking his professor seems at be a free-floating XML tag.

I suppose it can be explained by the liking/wanting vs. approving distinction (you can have a feeling that you disapprove of) or Alicorn's idea of repudiating one's negative characteristics. And then the cognitive dissonance created by you giving an apple to someone you dislike may be resolved by shifting your attitude of the person in a positive direction -- so in this sense, Undoing is a strategy to reduce disapproved/repudiated properties.

This is especially notable with the way projection/reaction formation is discussed in practice: "He's opposing position X because he secretly supports it."

Interestingly, there is research showing that some people who oppose homosexuality or gay marriage do in fact show an unconscious attraction to the same sex -- see e.g. Weinstein et al. (2012). However, in this case I would agree that "he overtly opposes X because he covertly supports X" is the wrong way of looking at it; rather, he (the ego in Freudian terms) disapproves of his desire (the id). Of course, this doesn't imply that everybody who opposes X is doing so as a defense mechanism.

Edit: To clarify, I'm certainly not implying that homosexuality is a negative characteristic; just that some people are raised in a culture where it is stigmatized, and so they internalize the value that it is. The specific claim made by the Weinstein et al. paper is as follows:

  • Some children have parents who don't support their autonomy. Some of those parents happen to also hold negative attitudes toward homosexual individuals. The combination of these two factors results in the children seeking approval from their parents by suppressing the needs/wishes/beliefs etc. that aren't supported by their parents. The researchers did a survey of participants' explicit views about homosexuality and their sexual orientations, and also measured the participants' implicit sexual orientation using a reaction time task. They found a discrepancy between explicit and implicit sexual orientations, especially when parents showed low autonomy support, and also found that this discrepancy was related to greater self-reported homophobia and endorsement of anti-gay policy positions. The researchers conclude: "...these effects can be understood, at least in part, as a defensive response to maintain the suppression of self-relevant, but threatening, information" (p.829).

I decided to edit this comment instead of replying directly to tempus' comment below, as I did not perceive that commenter to be acting charitably.