Defense Mechanisms VII: Reaction Formation (Not to be Confused with Hypocrisy)

I’ve begun work on a chapter in my book about the defense mechanism called ‘reaction formation’; as I usually do, I’ve taken a look around the web to see what other resources are available and how others have described this defense mechanism. In particular, I like to see the examples they give to illustrate such a process. The most common examples, you probably won’t be surprised to hear, focus on Republican politicians or religious conservatives with rabidly anti-gay positions who get caught engaging in illicit homosexual behavior.

The most recent instance involved a conservative mayor in Mississippi who ran for Congress on a “family values” platform and was subsequently indicted for using his business credit to cover a vast array of personal expenses, including visits to “Canada’s premiere gay lifestyle store and sex shop” in Toronto. Other famous examples of anti-gay Republicans who have been outted over the past ten years include George Rekers (the guy who hired a young man from Rentboy.com to “carry his luggage” throughout Europe), Pastor Ted Haggard of Colorado Springs, who engaged in a three-year sexual relationship with his “masseur”, and former Senator Larry Craig of Idaho, caught playing footsy with an undercover cop in a Minneapolis airport men’s room.

Last year, on an episode with Dr. Drew clinical psychologist Michelle Goland stated that this kind of behavior is an example of reaction formation, where the individual hates a part of himself that he is aware of, adopting one virulent position in public that expresses self-hatred for another part of himself. This is incorrect. While she’s undoubtedly right about the self-hatred involved, the reaction formation defense mechanism, like all defense mechanisms, is an unconscious process. If a man is conscious of having a desire for sexual relations with another man, then reaction formation is not at work. He might rationalize or justify his actions in various ways, but those are likely conscious processes. I’m not sure what to call it — maybe some type of comparmentalization, or a peculiar kind of suspension of judgment, but it is definitely not an example of the reaction formation defense mechanism.

If a man — say, a pastor or a politician — adopts an anti-gay platform and persecutes gays, or if a young man likes to beat up gays coming out of bars but isn’t consciously aware of his sexual attractions to them, then it would be an actual example of reaction formation. Another guest on that Dr. Drew segment, “infidelity analyst” (whatever that means) Sarah Symonds says “most homophobes are actually gay.” I couldn’t make that statement with equal conviction, based on experience, but I think she’s probably right. But homophobes are not consciously aware of their attractions; they have warded off the awareness of desire by using the reaction formation defense mechanism. Men who adopt a virulently anti-gay position in public while engaging in a secret homosexual life are not using reaction formation as a defense, nor are they really homophobes. They are hypocrites.

While reading Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, I came across a better example from the political sphere, one that illustrates the actual process of reaction formation. Reviewer Timothy Noah was describing the decline of moderate Republicans as detailed in two books, Rule and Ruin by Jeffrey Kabaservice and The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism by Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson. The latter book makes quite a lot out of some fascinating polling data from South Dakota supporters of the Tea Party:

“Tea Partiers aren’t opposed to government benefits per se, according to Skocpol and Williamson; rather, they’re opposed to ‘unearned’ government benefits, which in practice ends up meaning any benefits extended to African-Americans, Latinos, immigrants (especially undocumented ones) and the young. A poll of South Dakota Tea Party supporters found that 83 percent opposed any Social Security cuts, 78 percent opposed any cuts to Medicare prescription-drug coverage, and 79 percent opposed cuts in Medicare reimbursements to physicians and hospitals. ‘So much for the notion that Tea Partiers are all little Dick Armeys,’ Skocpol and Williamson write. The small government Tea Partiers favor is one where I get mine and most others don’t get much at all.”

They hold such views while at the same time supporting a drastic reduction in the size of the federal government along with lower taxes … at least for themselves. Another surprising result of that poll: 56% of Tea Party supporters favor a 5 percent increase in income taxes for individuals who earn more than $1 million a year. In other words, they want to keep all of their own “entitlements” and pay lower taxes, while depriving people who haven’t “earned” them of the same benefits and forcing higher wage earners to foot the bill. I do not believe these people are hypocrites. I don’t believe they consciously recognize the contradictions in the positions they hold. Rather, they’re demonstrating the process of reaction formation.

Remember that the social welfare programs enacted by Roosevelt, Johnson and Obama are derided by the far right as symptoms of the “nanny state,” as if government regards people as babies to be taken care of. They are extremely hostile to people (especially undocumented immigrants) who try to “take advantage” of that system in order to be “looked after.” They rabidly extol the virtues of self-reliance; the self-sufficient pioneer man of the west is a revered icon, and I’m confident they consciously believe everything they say. At the same time, they want to enjoy the benefits of that “nanny state” without having to pay the full price and without acknowledging that they are being “looked after”; they also hate those people who (they believe) are enjoying these benefits without having “earned” them, even though they themselves haven’t fully earned them either — someone else (those rich people) will have to pay.

There are some legitimate political arguments here; I want to look below the surface to understand these apparent contradictions. I believe the human wish to be taken care is very common. And yet, such a wish conflicts with the political convictions of many conservative Republicans. In classic form, this conflict is resolved by repressing that wish and developing a reaction formation against it: hating those people who embody that wish, those illegal immigrants, blacks and younger white people who want the nanny state to look after them. “I don’t feel that way, they do. And I resent them for it.” I personally do not believe that Tea Party supporters are hypocrites, nor do I believe they’re consciously aware of the contradiction in their views or wishes. To my mind, they have developed a reaction formation in order to keep the unacceptable wish to be looked after out of consciousness.

If you are a Tea Party supporter offended by these remarks, please don’t vent your spleen in a comment to this post. I had enough of that kind of hostility when I wrote my piece last year on hatred in politics. I’m a small government conservative myself and have many sympathies with the issues raised by the Tea Party; but I believe these incompatible goals — the wish to preserve benefits for themselves without acknowledging their actual cost and paying for it — makes the movement deeply flawed. Resenting other people for getting something they haven’t “earned”, a political reaction formation, is as ineffective for dealing with reality as most other psychological defenses. It makes constructive thought almost impossible.

Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.

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25 comments

    One of the points I’m trying to address right now in my book is the idea that these things we call defense mechanisms are simply the best way we have of describing the phenomenon, and the danger is in thinking that they are concrete and separate operations. In fact, you’re right — from one point of view, this thing called reaction formation is a kind of denial, because it clearly involves denial of an attraction. It’s also a variety of splitting and projection, where as aspect of the self is split off and projected into another person. The important thing is that a painful or acceptable part of psychic reality is warded off via some particular fantasy or mental operation; we can look at it from different perspectives and give it different names.

    Isn’t jealousy a factor too? “Those People are claiming, as a right, what I achieved with difficulty or have never had at all. Nobody should have what I have except by earning it with unhappiness like mine. Because if life comes more easily to someone else, it follows that I’ve been cheated.”

    I see this same pattern in the classic (and ancient) pattern of scapegoating visibly homeless people in ways that express jealousy of the Other’s perceived freedom.

    Hi Dr. Burgo-

    I’ve really enjoyed your past couple of posts, thank you. There are a few things with this one that I don’t understand completely. You present two ideas as examples of conflict:

    “Tea Partiers [are] opposed to ‘unearned’ government benefits, which in practice ends up meaning any benefits extended to African-Americans, Latinos, immigrants (especially undocumented ones) and the young.”

    “They hold such views while at the same time supporting a drastic reduction in the size of the federal government along with lower taxes … at least for themselves. ”

    The result of which is:

    “In other words, they want to keep all of their own “entitlements” and pay lower taxes, while depriving people who haven’t “earned” them of the same benefits and forcing higher wage earners to foot the bill. ”

    What I don’t understand here is your logic. Not all taxes go to entitlement programs; the government provides other useful services like economic management, military protection, the rule of law.

    Supporting a decrease in entitlement programs is not contradictory to asking that other programs be cut or that more of these other useful functions be paid for by the people most able to afford it.

    Please remember that these other useful services are enjoyed by minorities and the young also. There are taxes that even people receiving benefits pay. Nobody wins when everybody’s money is wasted.

    I don’t understand how holding these opinions is sign of pathology. Did I misunderstand what you were trying to say?

    As I’m sure you know, the non-entitlement/non-defense portion of the budget is relatively small; even if we were to radically slash other federal programs, we still could not afford our current level of entitlements. I’m not saying anything radical here. Either we need to reduce the level of entitlements or increase taxes, but it is fiscally impossible to keep those entitlements by gutting other federal programs and services.

    As for “pathology”, I’m uncomfortable with that word. Defense mechanisms are a part of normal functioning. Everyone uses them and we couldn’t get by without them; it’s when they become excessive or too deeply entrenched that they’re a problem. I’d say that the type of reaction formation demonstrated by members of the Tea Party doesn’t rise to that level. I’ll bet if you took them, one of one, gave them a little talk about economics and the of our unsustainable spending program, they’d see the light. It’s the kind of group mentality, fueled by a lot of rage about where our country has gone these past few years, that makes it difficult for people to think clearly about these issues.

    Okay, I think I understand now:

    Entitlement programs must be maintained at their current levels and this must be done by increases in taxes across the entire economic spectrum. Oppinions differing to this are muddled by rage and lack of education.

    Thanks for the clarification.

    I think a reaction formation describes perfectly the antipathy I had towards children and the suburbs after growing up and leaving home. After discovering that my mother, father and half my nuclear family are personality disordered, I realize that my antipathy towards children and the suburbs was not an an actual hatred, but just an inability to accept the happy childhood scenario and thus recognize all that I have lost. Same with suburbs in that I projected my happiness was because of suburbia when really it was dark family dysfunction. Do you think this makes sense?

    I did not know you are writing a book. All the best with that endeavour and I look forward to knowing when it has become published.

    Thanks, Gil. It’s coming out in Spring 2013. I’m supposed to have a final draft in August, which looks like it won’t be a big problem. And believe me, when it comes, since I will be fairly bursting with pride, I will undoubtedly be letting EVERYONE know!