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New Research Explains How to Deal With Defensive Behavior in Emotional Times

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Key Takeaways

  • Defensive behavior can hurt our relationships, personal well-being, and ability to make decisions.
  • A recent study looked at defensiveness in response to wrongdoing and the ways in which we can reduce the behavior.

In today's polarized ideological climate, we're much more likely to encounter defensive behavior—or feel defensive ourselves—in the tense conversations that surround more sensitive subjects.

Topics like COVID-19 vaccines or election politics have elicited strong opinions. And pointing out another's wrongdoing can often be perceived as a personal attack, fanning the flames of heated discussions and escalated behavioral responses.

Responding defensively to transgressions can negatively impact relationships, individual well-being, and decision-making within government and organizations. A recent study published in The British Journal of Social Psychology examined this type of defensive response in regard to social and moral identity to determine the ways in which the behavior can potentially be reduced.

The Study

Defense mechanisms are a primal part of social development and can appear in the form of avoidance, deflection, rationalization, denial of responsibility or critical information, compartmentalization or minimization of harm caused. These are the negative ways in which we respond when we're feeling insecure or under attack.

The research, out of Australia, focused on defensiveness following wrongdoing and found that defensive responses are heightened when an individual's moral or social self is being threatened by rejection.

Researchers conducted two studies. In one, participants recalled interpersonal wrongdoing, and in the other, participants watched a "guilt-eliciting" documentary about the practices of meat production. Both studies revealed an increase in defensiveness when individuals were faced with a social or moral threat.

To reduce this behavior, researchers suggest addressing the underlying threat to the individual's social and moral identity. This can be achieved by affirming their values, encouraging moral engagement and repair. If an offender can acknowledge the values their actions violated, they reaffirm the importance of those same values. This acknowledgment then kickstarts the processing of the wrongdoing, rather than allowing for denial or avoidance.

This allows for the possibility of repair. By overcoming the urge to deflect, the transgressor experiences the resulting emotions of guilt and acceptance and may be able to progress in mending their social or moral identity.

Psychology of Defensiveness

While defensiveness might not be an ideal response, it does allow individuals to stay optimistic, bounce back after failure, and persevere. Responding defensively can often be viewed as an act of self preservation.

But when it comes to defensiveness in response to transgressions, this type of behavior can inhibit change and shatter trust between interaction partners. To a defensive person, admitting wrongdoing threatens moral identity and social acceptance.

"Humans have a primary psychological need to be valued and included by others, to feel that they are good and appropriate group members or relationship partners," said study researcher Lydia Woodyatt in a statement. "When people do something wrong, this primary psychological need is threatened, driving a defensive response. But addressing that psychological need to belong can reduce their defensiveness."

Tracy Thomas, PhD

Defensive behavior will keep creating negative outcomes. Reactivity is a chain of reactivity.

— Tracy Thomas, PhD

Unchecked defensiveness can be dangerous. This vicious cycle of emotion can start with an outburst of anger or rage followed by guilt and shame, which leads to fear and instability, which can then ignite further reactive behavior. And breaking this pattern becomes increasingly difficult as time goes on. The longer it persists, the more automated the reactive behavior becomes.

"Defensive behavior will keep creating negative outcomes," says psychologist and emotional scientist Tracy Thomas, PhD. "Reactivity is a chain of reactivity... It all catches up with you until you grow the emotional strength to change that reactivity into connected intentionality and create productive outcomes over and over again."

Thomas and other experts point to current worldwide emotional crises as cause for increasing our society's reactivity overall. The pandemic threatens survival, and its outcomes and restrictions create a perfect storm for wreaking havoc on our emotional environment.

"With COVID-19, we’re nine months in and we’re all in this heightened sense of fight or flight," says Anisha Patel-Dunn, DO, a psychiatrist and chief medical officer at LifeStance Health. "Chronically, our adrenaline and cortisol levels have been high and continue to be high. We’re innately defensive because we're all feeling very vulnerable, a lot of anxiety, worry, and concern—feathers ruffled all the time. We see this everywhere."

Prevention

If you're working on your own reactive behavior, first focus on prevention. “When we are feeling grounded, we’re less likely to get angry or frustrated," Patel-Dunn says. "We have a reserve, and we just need to refill our reserves as best we can given all that’s going on."

Keeping that reserve full relies on a consistent practice of self-care. Nourishment and exercise contribute to keeping your body and mind balanced, and avoiding frustration triggers prevents unnecessary heightened emotional states. If watching the news consistently sets you off, limit your daily consumption and fill that time with activities that benefit you instead.

Anisha Patel-Dunn, DO


Bringing yourself back into your body and breathing, on a physical level, brings the autonomic nervous system down. This will feed into you feeling calmer.

— Anisha Patel-Dunn, DO

Managing defensive behavior in the moment is a bit more difficult. First take note of the way this manifests physically. Do you notice your heart racing, your palms beginning to sweat, or an overall wave of warmth during a disagreement or confrontation? Consider these reactive red flags that can help you stay a step ahead of a negative response.

De-Escalation

After noticing these symptoms, one way to de-escalate a heightened physical or emotional response is taking a few deep breaths. Heeding your body's warnings and pausing to take a breath can have a major impact on how you proceed in the interaction.

"Bringing yourself back into your body and breathing, on a physical level, brings the autonomic nervous system down," Patel-Dunn says. "This will feed into you feeling calmer."

If you find yourself in a position in which you've set someone else off, you can steer the conversation in a less aggressive direction. An outburst-inducing interaction that's prevalent today is asking someone to wear a mask. Whether you've personally experienced this, witnessed it, or viewed the countless videos on social media capturing this type of interaction, it's clear that mask-wearing has become a point of contention.

Notice How You're Communicating

Patel-Dunn recommends focusing on the way in which you're communicating. Your tone can make or break whether your words are received in the first place. Are you raising your voice? How does your tone come across? A pejorative or accusatory tone will most likely cause the person you're interacting with to dismiss you before you can even make your point.

Body language can contribute to de-escalation, as well. Intimidation is not an effective tactic with a reactive person. Taking a neutral position—keeping your arms at your side, palms facing up—and approaching the person at eye level promotes a calm conversation.

In addressing the transgression verbally, keep it simple. Be respectful. Validate the person. Make it clear that you're approaching the subject in a nonjudgmental way.

"Take it out of moral or ideological perspective, and bring it back to science and fact," Patel-Dunn says. "It's not a moral issue. It's just the fact of protecting yourself and others."

It's also important to recognize when it might be time to remove yourself from a tense situation. You'll prevent escalation by suggesting you both step away. This kind of awareness is useful for all parties involved: If you're feeling a defensive response bubbling up, a self-imposed timeout can keep you from doing or saying something you'll later regret.

“Instead of creating reactive consequences, you're actually emotionally leading yourself and people around you by your example,” Thomas says.

What This Means For You

We're living in highly reactive times. To reduce defensive responses, avoid personal triggers, maintain awareness of tone and body language, and know when to step away from a heated interaction.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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  1. Wenzel M, Woodyatt L, McLean B. The effects of moral/social identity threats and affirmations on psychological defensiveness following wrongdoingBr J Soc Psychol. 2020;59(4):1062-1081. doi:10.1111/bjso.12378