The reality of our existence sometimes bothers consciousness. We behave, or at least have impulses to behave, in unscrupulous ways. Our human reality flows through our veins, chemicals ignite thoughts and feelings that don’t translate well into the rules of our social world. We protect our ego from these nasty conflicts through defense mechanisms. One interesting mechanism is reaction formation. In reaction formation, our unacceptable inner impulse is replaced with its opposite.
Reaction Formation and Defense Mechanisms
Bubbling inside our bodies are a complex collection of chemicals flowing, communicating through trillions of neuronal connections, pushing for behavioral action. For the most part, this promotes survival. Inner conditions create a tension, throwing our bodies out of homeostatic balance, and by obliging to the desire we restore the balance the balance.
Somewhere in this simple equation of motivation much of psychological theories emerge. Body says, “do it,” the mind says, “don’t do it.” We fight with these underlying urges to act when in modern society these actions create harm to our wellbeing.
According to Freud (1949), impulses repressed continue to generate tension. The most straightforward avenue to relieving the tension is to act, fulfilling the desire of the underlying urge. For example, if the urge is to eat a piece of the chocolate cake, the tension is best released by scarfing down a piece of the chocolatey goodness. Of course, Freud focused mostly on sexual urges.
Urges, however, rarely exist alone. We are complex. Each action is tied to reactions, both internal and external. Our urge may conflict with society norms or other personal goals. We may satisfy the primary urge of the moment but invite rejection, punishment, or abandonment by others. Anxieties arise from the cognitive dissonance of conflicting desires.
“In order to keep from being overwhelmed by the anxiety associated with the incipient emergence of motives which have become consciously unacceptable,” wrote Irving Sarnoff, “The individual is obliged to expend a portion of his available energy in making additional ego-defense responses” (1960). Sarnoff explains in his masterful paper that the presence of reaction formation’s presence is inferred “when an individual makes overt responses which are directly contrary to those required for maximum reduction of tension” (1960).
Scientific Support for Reaction Formation
Beyond the Freudian theory, there is scientific support for the use of reaction formation as a protective mechanism. In a 1998 review of reaction formation literature Baumeister, Dale and Sommer concluded that “when people are publicly or implicitly accused of having socially undesirable sexual feelings, prejudice attitudes, or failures of competence, some respond by asserting the opposite (and attempting to prove it) to an extreme degree.”
Two Foundational Concepts Behind Reaction Formation
Two key concepts behind reaction formation are:
Expenditure of Energy
Repression of any emotion requires energy. Internal motivations push forward, like a raging river. Changing the direction is a difficult task. If the urge continues, then the repression task becomes draining.
Maintains a Perception of Possessing Qualities Dissimilar to the Underlying Urges
We see this often. The self-righteous senator campaigning for family values, arrested with under age boy and drugs in motel (2017). The internet health guru that drinks to an extreme. The preacher teaching about humility, and sacrifice of worldly goods collecting millions in donations, living in a mansion, and vacationing on a yacht.
Reaction Formation is Common
While only a sliver of reaction formation examples make the news, many, if not most if us, rely on some forms of reaction formation, presenting ourselves as a “good person” while silently suffering the demons of being human.
V. S. Ramachandran, the director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California, San Diego, wrote that “control mechanisms that stabilize a system and help avoid oscillations are the rule rather than the exception in biology (2011 Kindle Location 4,612).
We use defense mechanisms to stabilize our system. Reaction formation has a stabilizing influence on our biological system. Unfortunately, mechanisms don’t always stabilize our futures. Our discomforting emotions may ease but our relationships slowly deteriorate, creating future tensions in need of greater defense mechanisms.
Parents present a moral superiority to children, giving them the satisfaction of guiding their child and presenting a good example; but live a silent life debauchery away from home.
George E. Valliant wrote, “the fathers most alienated from their children were specialists in the defense mechanism of reaction formation and did the opposite of what they really wanted to do. Such fathers were also three times as likely to be prisoners of their consciences, to be rigid and emotionally constricted. They were more likely to see their children’s rebellion as an affront to themselves rather than as part of the natural process of growing up” (2012).
Reaction formation can intrude on life in many ways. Because it is a defense mechanism, it operates largely undetected. Yet, because the behavior is directly opposite of an unacceptable urge, the defense suggest some recognition (even if it is unconscious) of social values.
Reaction Formation and Ego Protection
Examples of reaction formation extend beyond simple violations of ethical or moral codes. Often reaction formation is summoned in protection of the ego. Social Media is a massive compilation of reaction formation protections, proclaiming to the world a belief that in secret is far from the poster’s reality.
- A brave and successful person doesn’t need others (but underneath the individual desperately seeks to belong)
- Happiness is a choice (but underneath the person is suffering from depression)
- We should be kind (but interacts anonymously on social media with venom and judgement)
The internet is a convenient and non-threatening place to represent ourselves as strong, brave ethical giants while underneath we are quite different.
Reaction formation often is expressed in absolutes. Unbudging beliefs opposing a demonized concept. Joseph Burgo Ph.D. explains that “what you will notice, either in yourself or other people, is an intensity that seems inappropriate to the situation at hand” (2013).
”The lady doth protest too much, methinks” ~William Shakespeare
Reaction Formation and Deception
In a great article on reaction formation, author Angel Rivera explains, “it is more than a fake it until you make it internal drive. The original impulse or feeling of the ego isn’t replaced but is instead only covered over by engaging in the opposite attitudes and behavior” (retrieved 4-2-2022).
Reaction formation is a defense mechanism operating under the radar. The purpose is not to establish healthy behaviors and beliefs but to convince ourselves and others that we are not who our underlying compulsions push us to be. The process is not a conscious effort to improve or regulate emotional and behavioral problems.
The exaggerated and amplified broadcast of self-righteous superiority is a deception, clouding our vision to discomforting realities. In an article on self-deception, T. Franklin Murphy wrote, “this dull grasp on reality conceals opportunity for escape, inviting continued languishing and accumulating defeats” (2016).
Rivera adds, “the original impulse or feeling of the ego isn’t replaced but is instead only covered over by engaging in the opposite attitudes and behavior” (2022).
Dangerous Characteristics of Reaction Formation
Reaction formation has some notable drawbacks. Reaction formation is a noxious corruption of the more mature defense of altruism, where healthy behaviors towards others are done for the reward of helping others rather than a presentation to combat unhealthy underlying motivations.
According to Valliant, reaction formation, according to Valliant, is often accompanied by “an inflexible attitude, affect, or behavior that exactly opposes an unacceptable impulse.” He continues to expand on this rigidity in judgement, “but reaction formation, precisely because it leaves no options open, can lead to dangerous rigidity and to pointless loss of pleasure.” This inflexible line between right and wrong often translates into “abrasive superiority” (2012).
As one holds themselves self-righteously superior to others holding the same subjectively undesirable impulse, the further the individual alienates himself from his own underlying nature. Unwilling to accept themselves as they truly are, they flounder in attempts to grow.
Valliant warned that “defenses that removed, denied, or dammed inner life – reaction formation, dissociation, and the immature defense mechanisms – were far more common among poor outcomes” and that men that viewed their marriages as unhappy used defenses of dissociation and reaction formation far more often than men that viewed their marriages as happy (2012).
Reaction Formations as a More Mature Defense
Valliant divided the defenses into three primary categories (immature, neurotic, and mature) and seven subcategories with seven the most mature defense. The research suggests that level seven defenses are correlated with the most life success. Reaction formation is a neurotic level five defense (Murphy, 2021).
Reaction formation according to Valliant’s hierarchy of defenses is a maturation from the immature defense that project failure and dangerous impulses on others, such as projection; or denial through defenses such as splitting.
Altruism and Reaction Formation
Valliant wrote that “reaction formation appears to be an intermediate step between projection and altruism” (2012). Altruism involves getting pleasure from giving to others. Reaction formation involves getting relief from underlying impulses by having others (and ourselves) view us a “good person.”
Reaction formation provides the comfort of an underlying narrative of being a “good person”. We soothe our failings by nullifying the impact of our actions with self forgiving statements, “no matter what my failings, at least I am a good person.”
Joseph Burgo wrote regarding this sentiment, “in actual fact, they may have devoted themselves to charities, church work, public service and various other types of volunteer work; within their own world, they may be viewed as Good Samaritans or even saints.”
These acts themselves give fodder to support the declaration of goodness. Burgo continues, “many people find great meaning in such philanthropic work, but when they rely upon it as proof of their own goodness, when they place undue emphasis on appearing a certain way and being viewed as a ‘good person’ by others, it usually means they unconsciously struggle with very different kinds of feelings, especially anger and hatred” (2013).
Often the aggression exists underneath, finding different ways to be expressed. “Good people” support many unjust causes, displacing aggression onto strangers or into social causes.
Lawrence Kohlberg’s Sequence of Morality
In the 1980’s, Lawrence Kohlberg proposed that we develop through stages of moral reasoning. Beginning with the toddler’s wish to completely avoid discomforting guilt (denial) to a child’s desire to conform to the system (reaction formation) to the adolescent’s wish to obey the majority (suppression), moving to the adult ‘s wish to respond to the needs of the community (altruism) and finally culminating with the sage’s wish to obey the demands of his own conscience (2012).
Moving through the moral stages of growth is not a given. Many people get stuck, remaining in one of the stages throughout their lives.
A Few Closing Words on Reaction Formation
Reaction formation exists in individuals and groups. We exalt our good and bury our bad. Perhaps, often unconsciously. We want to belong. We want to view ourselves as good people. Sometimes acting like as we perceive others desire us to be, playing the chameleon, is easier than developing healthy habits, and cultivating altruistic desires. We can recognize this game, bring weak spots into view, and begin the real work of personal development.
Baumeister, Roy, F., Dale, K., &Sommer, K. L. (1998). Freudian defense mechanisms and empirical findings in modern psychology: Reaction formation, projection, displacement, and undoing, isolation, sublimation, and denial. Journal of Personality, 66, 1081-1124.
Burgo, Joseph (2013). Why Do I Do That?: Psychological Defense Mechanisms and the Hidden Ways They Shape Our Lives Kindle Edition
Di Giuseppe, M., & Perry, J. (2021). The Hierarchy of Defense Mechanisms: Assessing Defensive Functioning With the Defense Mechanisms Rating Scales Q-Sort. Frontiers in Psychology, 12,
Freud, Sigmond (1949) Collected Papers. Volume IV. Pp 84-97. Basic Books; 1st American Edition.
Fromm, Erich (1992). The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness. Holt Paperbacks; Revised and Rev edition
Murphy. T. Franklin (2016). Self Deception: Getting Past the Illusions. Psychology Fanatic. Published: 11-2016. Accessed: 4-2-2022.
Ramachandran, V. S. (2011) The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human. W. W. Norton & Company; Reprint edition.
Sarnoff, I. (1960). Reaction formation and cynicism1. Journal of Personality, 28(1), 129-143.
Valliant, George E. (2012). Adaptations to Life. Harvard University Press.