Closer Look Empirical Studies of Repression

Although psychoanalysts have been interested in repression since Freud introduced the concept, empirical research on this topic has been relatively sparse until recent years (Holmes, 1990). Perhaps this has been due to the difficulty of defining repression in such a way that it may actually be measured for research purposes. Researchers have developed questionnaires to identify individuals who typically use repression as a mechanism for coping with threatening, stressful, or anxiety-producing situations.

Freud held that the essential aspect of repression was the motivated unavailability of unpleasant, painful, or disturbing emotions (Bonanno, 1990). He wrote that repression was a process whereby unpleasant emotions are turned away and kept "at a distance from the conscious" (Freud, 1915/1957, p. 147). Almost 65 years later, Weinberger, Schwartz, and Davidson (1979) were the first to propose that repression, as a style of coping with unpleasant emotions, can be measured by examining various combinations of scores on questionnaires of anxiety and defensiveness. These researchers administered a questionnaire measure of anxiety and a questionnaire measure of defensiveness to a group of subjects. The anxiety questionnaire contained items that inquired about whether or not one has strong symptoms of anxiety (e.g., heart pounding) when engaging in various behaviors, such as public speaking. The defensiveness questionnaire contained items inquiring a bout common faults, such as whether respondents had ever gossiped, had ever become so angry that they wanted to break something, or had ever resented someone's asking them for a favor. Clearly, almost everyone is guilty of these minor offenses at one time or another. Therefore, subjects who consistently deny engaging in these somewhat undesirable behaviors score high on defensiveness. The researchers combined the subjects' anxiety and defensiveness scores, which resulted in the four-fold typology portrayed in Figure 9.3. Most of the subsequent research on repression involved comparing the repressor group to the other three groups on a dependant measure.

In the initial study, after subjects had completed the questionnaires, Weinberger et al. (1979) had the subjects engage in a phrase association task, where they match up phrases in one list with phrases in another list that have similar meaning; several phrases contained angry and sexual overtones. As the subjects attempted to match up the phrases, the researchers measured their physiological reactions. The researchers also measured the subjects' self-reported levels of distress immediately after their performance. They found that the repressors reported the lowest levels of subjective distress yet were found to exhibit the highest levels of physiological arousal (heart rate, skin conductance). In short, repressors verbally say they are not distressed yet physiologically appear to be very distressed. Other researchers have obtained similar findings (e.g., Asendorpf & Scherer, 1983; Davis & Schwartz, 1987). These experimental results are consistent with Freud's view that repression keeps unpleasant experiences out of conscious awareness. Moreover, the results are consistent with Freud's ideas that such repressed unpleasant experiences still affect the individual, in spite of being outside of awareness (in this case, the repressed experiences affect the person's level of physiological arousal, even though the person is not consciously aware of being anxious).

Another way to examine repression is to ask subjects to recall childhood experiences associated with pleasant and unpleasant emotions. This is exactly what psychologists Penelope Davis and Gary Schwartz did in 1987. They asked their subjects to recall and describe childhood experiences that they associated with happiness, sadness, anger, fear, and wonder. The researchers' findings showed that the repressors, defined as high defensive-low anxious persons, did recall fewer negative emotional experiences than the other subjects and that the repressors were substantially older at the time of their earliest negative emotional memories. Somewhat surprisingly, the repressors also had limited access to positive memories. This finding illustrates what may be one of the costs of repression—pleasant as well as unpleasant emotional memories may be diminished or lost to conscious recall.

Penelope Davis (1987) expanded on the general idea that repressors have limited access to emotional memories. First, she found that the effect is strongest for memories about the self. The repressors in her study had no trouble remembering bad things that had happened to other people (e.g., siblings), but they did have limited recollection about unpleasant events that they themselves had experienced. Second, the effects of repression appeared to be strongest for the memories associated with feelings of fear and self-consciousness. Although Freud (1915/ 1957) wrote "the motive and purpose of repression was nothing else than the

Self-reported anxiety Low High


Self-reported defensiveness


True low anxious

Defensive high

True high anxious

Figure 9.3

Finding repressors by measuring anxiety and defensiveness. The subjects who deny being anxious, but who are high on defensiveness, are most likely repressors.

avoidance of unpleasure" (p. 153), according to Davis, the motive to repress is particularly strong for experiences associated with fear and self-consciousness. Why might this be the case? These emotions are often evoked in situations where the focus of attention is on the self in an evaluative or threatening way. In fear, for example, there is a threat to the very existence of the self. In self-consciousness, the threat of being negatively evaluated by others looms large, leading a person to feel exposed and vulnerable.

Hansen and Hansen (1988) found that repressors' memories are relatively less elaborate when it comes to emotion than are those of nonrepressors. That is, repressors have memories for emotional events that are less developed, less refined, and less rich than those of nonrepressors. These authors raise the intriguing question of what might account for this impoverished emotional memory on the part of repressors. It could come about in one of two ways. First, repressors may have limited recall of their emotional experiences. That is, repressors may have actually had varied emotional experiences and those experiences may actually be in their memories, but they just have trouble retrieving or recalling them. Alternatively, repressors could actually have blocked certain emotional experiences from entering into their memories in the first place. The effect of repression could have occurred at the encoding rather than the recall stage.

Although most studies of repression have examined memory for past events, a few studies (e.g., Hansen, Hansen, & Shantz, 1992) suggest that the effect of repression may occur not only as diminished memory for negative events but also in the person's actual reaction to negative events when they occur. This is what Freud would have predicted, that repres-sors actually do not experience negative emotions as strongly as nonrepressors do. We can ask whether repressors simply have poor memories for bad events or whether, when bad events happen, they actually experience less negative emotion than nonrepressors do, or both.

In a study by Cutler, Larsen, and Bunce (1996), repressors and nonrepressors kept daily diaries of 40 different

A Closer Look (Continued)

emotions for 28 consecutive days. After reporting on their emotions every day for a month, the subjects were then asked to think back over the month and to rate how much of each emotion they recalled experiencing, on average, during the course of that month. The researchers, thus, had a measure of actual day-to-day emotion, recorded close to the time when the subjects experienced the emotions, as well as a measure of recalled emotion. This approach allowed the researchers to test whether the repressors reported less negative emotion, recalled less negative emotion, or both. The results showed that the repressors, compared with the nonrepressors, actually reported experiencing fewer and less intense unpleasant emotions on a day-to-day basis. The repressors' memories for unpleasant emotions, however, were only slightly less accurate than the memories of the nonrepressors. The effect of repression seems to occur during the experience of unpleasant events, whereby repressors somehow dampen their emotional reactions to bad events.

Freud said that the function of repression was to keep unpleasant experiences out of conscious awareness. We now know more specifically that the blunting effect of repression occurs primarily during the reaction to bad events. Repressors do not have bad memories; rather, somehow they keep unpleasant events from entering into their memories in the first place.

An interesting example of reaction formation is provided by Copper (1998), who discusses the concept of "killing someone with kindness." Consider a man who is angry with his girlfriend, but the anger is not conscious; he is not aware of how angry he really is. It is raining outside so he of fers her his umbrella. She refuses to take it, but he insists. She keeps refusing, and he keeps insisting that she take it. Here he is replacing his hostility with apparent kindness. However , his aggression is coming out in his persistent insistence and his ignoring her wishes not to take the umbrella. According to psychoanalysis, this dynamic can often be found when defenses are being used; people may try to cover up their wishes and intention and yet unwittingly express them.

The mechanism of reaction formation makes it possible for psychoanalysts to predict that sometimes people will do exactly the opposite of what you might otherwise think they would do. It also alerts us to be sensitive to instances when a person is doing something in excess, such as when someone is being overly nice to us for no apparent reason. Perhaps in such cases the person really means the opposite of what he or she is doing. One of the hallmarks of reaction formation is excessive or persistent behavior.

Projection Another type of defense mechanism, projection, is based on the notion that sometimes we see in others the traits and desires we find most upsetting in our selves. We literally "project" (i.e., attribute) our own unacceptable qualities onto others. We can then hate them, instead of hating ourselves, for having those unacceptable qualities or desires. At the same time, we can disparage the tendencies or characteristics in question without admitting that we possess them. Other people become the target by virtue of their having qualities that we intensely dislike in ourselves. For instance, a thief is often worried about the prospect of others stealing from him and claims that others are not to be trusted. Or a woman denies having any interest in sexuality yet insists that all the men she knows "have nothing but sex on their minds." Married men who have af fairs are more suspicious than other husbands that their wives are unfaithful. What a person intensely dislikes in or gets upset about with others is often revealing of his or her innermost insecurities and conflicts. A person who always insults others by calling them "stupid" may , in fact, harbor some insecurity about his or her own intelligence.

As another example, consider people who become involved in antihomosexuality campaigns. Some people publicly express moral outrage or even propose violence against persons with this sexual orientation. Trent Lott was Senate Majority Leader in June 1998, when he stated on television that homosexuals had an illness similar to alcoholism or kleptomania. At the same time, Christian fundamentalists were airing TV advertisements stating that homosexuality was a disease and that gay persons should be cured. Pat Robertson, a fundamentalist preacher on the Christian Broadcasting Network, said that a hurricane might strike Orlando, Florida, because of a recent gathering of homosexual persons there. Could it be that homophobic persons are engaging projection as a defense mechanism against their own questionable sexual orientation?

In modern psychological research there is an effect, similar to projection, called the false consensus effect. This was first described by Ross, Greene, an House in 1977. It refers to the tendency many people have to assume that others are similar to them. That is, extraverts think many other people are extraverted, and conscientious persons think many other people are conscientious. To think that many other people share your own preferences, motivations, or traits is to display the false consensus ef fect.

Baumeister and colleagues (1998) ar gue that having a false consensus about one' s unflattering traits coul be ego defensive. For example, to be the only person whose credit card is over the limit would imply that one is unique in this moral deficienc . But if one believes that many people are over their credit limits, or close to it, then this false consensus belief might be protective of one's self-concept. The adolescent who explains some misbehavior with the phrase, "Gee, everyone else was doing it," is perhaps engaging in defensive false consensus, essentially saying, "I'm not so bad because everyone is bad too."

Sublimation According to Freud, sublimation is the most adaptive defense mechanism. Sublimation is the channeling of unacceptable sexual or aggressive instincts into socially desired activities. A common example is going out to chop wood when you are angry rather than acting on that anger or even engaging in other less adaptive defense mechanisms, such as displacement. Watching football or boxing is more desirable than beating someone up. Mountain climbing or volunteering for combat duty once in the army might be forms of sublimating a death wish. Freud once reportedly remarked about all the sublimated sexual ener gy that must have gone into building the skyscrapers of New York City. One's choice of occupation (e.g., athlete, mortician, and emer gency room nurse) might be interpreted as the sublimation of certain unacceptable ur ges. The positive feature of sublimation is that it allows for some limited expression of id tendencies, so the ego does not have to invest ener gy in holding the id in check. Freud maintained that the greatest achievements of civilization were due to the ef fective sublimation of sexual and aggressive ur ges.

In projection, we see in others those traits or desires we find most upsetting in ourselves. We can then disparage them for having the undesirable characteristic, without admitting that we have that very characteristic.

Defense Mechanisms in Everyday Life

Life provides each of us with plenty of psychological bumps and bruises. We don't get a job we badly wanted, an acquaintance says something hurtful, we realize something about ourselves that is not flattering. In short, we must face unexpected or dis appointing events all the time. Defense mechanisms may be useful in coping with these occurrences and the emotions they generate (Larsen, 2000a, 2000b; Larsen & Prizmic, 2004). We all have to deal with stress, and, to the extent that defense mechanisms help, so much the better (see Valliant, 1994, for a discussion and categorization of defense mechanisms).

It is not too dif ficult, howeve , to imagine circumstances that are made worse by the use of defense mechanisms (Cramer , 2000, 2002). Others may avoid a person who projects a lot. A person who displaces frequently may have few friends. Moreover, the use of defense mechanisms takes psychic ener gy that is therefore not available for other pursuits. How do you know when the use of defense mechanisms is becoming a problem? The answer is twofold: you know a behavior is becoming a problem if it begins inhibiting the ability to be productive or if it begins limiting the ability to maintain r elationships. If either one of these areas in life is negatively affected—work or relationships—then you might wonder about a psychological problem. Moreover, there is much to be said in favor of directly confronting dif ficult issue and taking action directed at solving problems. Nevertheless, sometimes problems simply cannot be solved or a person does not have the ener gy or resources to directly confront a problem. Under these temporary circumstances, defense mechanisms may be very useful. When used occasionally , defense mechanisms most likely will not interfere with work or social life. According to Freud, the hallmark of mature adulthood was the ability to work productively and to develop and maintain satisfying relationships. Reaching mature adulthood, however , involves passing through several stages of personality development.

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