In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Defensive Processes

  • Introduction

Psychology Defensive Processes
E. Samuel Winer, Leonard Newman, Rikki H. Sargent
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0021


Defensive processes may be defined as an underlying series of mental operations, occurring primarily outside of a person’s awareness, that result in either (1) an experience being recorded in memory in such a way that it is remembered as being more pleasant or less threatening than it actually was, or (2) threatening experiences becoming inaccessible to future conscious recall. Defensive processes were initially conceptualized by Freud as basic unconscious mechanisms serving to shield the conscious mind from painful truths. Today, research on defensive processes focuses more on the social and cognitive processes that are associated with defensiveness, as well as on whether particular individuals are more likely to engage in defensive behaviors. The first section of this article, Defense Mechanisms, describes the initial Freudian origins of the concept of defensiveness, introduces some general reviews of the literature, discusses the scientific basis for defense mechanisms, and reviews critiques and controversies that have surrounded these concepts. The next section, Information Processing, describes research on perceptual defense, which has examined what cognitive processes play a role in the speed and accuracy with which emotional information is processed. The section Defensiveness in Relation to Anxiety, Social Desirability, and Terror Management describes extant research on individual differences in anxiety and social desirability, and highlights the defensive processes underlying terror management. These programs of research emphasize both universal tenets of defensiveness and defensiveness as as something that varies between people. Those individual differences are then used to predict differences in the way persons behave. The article concludes with a summary of research on Defensive Repressors, individuals who demonstrate high levels of defensiveness and low levels of anxiety; Vigilance-Avoidance Theory, a framework for understanding how these individuals process information; and Terror Management Theory, a theory positing that defensive processing stems from an awareness and fear of death and dying.

Defense Mechanisms

Defense mechanisms were originally discussed in Freud 1961 (first published 1923) as unconscious devices that served to keep information that would be too negative away from the consciousness of the perceiver. Anna Freud, Sigmund Freud’s daughter, expanded on this concept and more precisely defined particular defense mechanisms in her later work in Freud 1966 (first published 1936). These works theorize that there are unconscious mechanisms of defense that determine how information is processed consciously. Freud 1989 offers a selection of Freudian works to help the reader understand the context in which defensive processes were first conceived. Freud’s initial work made a positive contribution in that it brought attention to the study of defensive processes. As discussed later, elements of Freudian theory of defensive processes, such as his hydraulic theory of mind, and the wholly unconscious nature of defensive processes, are no longer the main focus of study in light of theoretical and scientific advances, while other concepts, such as repression of traumatic memories, have been the source of great controversy. Extant general overviews have focused on advances in the theory and research methodology that have allowed for the evaluation of the validity and scientific reality of defense mechanisms. A noticeable element of these reviews is that the authors often have strongly differing conclusions regarding the usefulness of the concept of defense mechanisms, and arrive at only a limited consensus (this is indicative of the controversy surrounding defense mechanisms, as expanded upon in Supportive Overviews and Unfavorable Overviews). Despite their differences, each overview cited under these subsections gives the reader a sense of the approaches to method and evidence that have been used to conceptualize and investigate defense mechanisms.

  • Freud, Anna. 1966. The ego and the mechanisms of defense. Translated by Cecil Baines. New York: International Univ. Press.

    Anna Freud’s continuation of her father’s work (first published in 1936). In this book, she maps out particular defense mechanisms and gives examples of situations for which people would use them to avoid unconscious impulses.

  • Freud, Sigmund. 1961. The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud. Vol. 19, The ego and the id. Edited and translated by James Strachey. London: Hogarth.

    This original work (first published 1923) describes defensive processes in relation to the ego and the id, two parts of the Freud’s tripartite structural model of mind. Freud described his theory of conscious and unconscious mind in relation to the ego and the id. Freud is notoriously contradictory in his definition of defense mechanisms. However, this work describes why these mechanisms of defense might operate.

  • Freud, Sigmund. 1989. The Freud reader. Edited by Peter Gay. New York: W. W. Norton.

    A selection of fifty-one representative texts written by Freud that will help a reader understand the role of the concept of defensiveness within the greater theory of mind posited by Freud. Gay’s selections offer an excellent representation of Freud’s ideas, editing down his entire corpus into 832 pages, with each entry edited and introductory material provided.

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