What Is Reaction Formation?

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What Is Reaction Formation?

In psychology, reaction formation is a defense mechanism in which a person unconsciously replaces an unwanted or anxiety-provoking impulse with its opposite, often expressed in an exaggerated or showy way.

A classic example is a young boy who bullies a young girl because, on a subconscious level, he's attracted to her. Consciously, he can't face the reality of his romantic feelings, so he expresses distaste toward her instead of appreciation.

History of Reaction Formation

The concept of defense mechanisms was initially proposed in the late 1800s by Sigmund Freud as part of his psychoanalytic theory. While Freud started the discussion on defense mechanisms, his daughter Anna Freud advanced the idea further by proposing 10 important defense mechanisms in her seminal book, The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense, published in 1936. One of those 10 defense mechanisms was reaction formation.

How to Recognize Reaction Formation

Reaction formation is a way for the ego to defend itself against any thoughts or feelings that an individual finds unacceptable due to personal, familial, community, or societal standards. While this may protect the individual's self-esteem at the moment, this can become problematic over time. It suppresses one's authentic self, which harms one's well-being.

Unfortunately, reaction formation can be especially challenging to recognize in everyday life. Someone defending their ego this way can be extremely passionate about the beliefs and preferences they outwardly express while their true beliefs stay buried in the subconscious.

Learning about defense mechanisms and examining your behavior can help you determine whether you may be using reaction formation to shield yourself from unwanted thoughts or feelings. A mental health professional can best guide you through this process, given they can explore your behavior with you and provide a more objective perspective.

Examples of Reaction Formation

While reaction formation may seem counterintuitive, there are many scenarios in which an individual may outwardly support one view while unconsciously feeling its exact opposite.

Here are some additional examples of reaction formation:

  • During adolescence, when people want to psychologically separate from their parents, a teenager expresses contempt for their parents to avoid acknowledging any feelings of love or affection toward them.
  • A man's self-esteem is threatened by the possibility that he is not masculine enough, so he overcompensates by acting aggressive and macho.
  • A drug addict loudly preaches against substance abuse and for abstinence from them.
  • Individuals who cannot consciously accept their anger and aggressive desires act in a calm, passive manner.
  • A young man who craves romance but can't seem to find a woman who will return his affection protects his ego by expressing sexist and misogynistic beliefs.
  • A woman proclaims she and her mother have the perfect relationship when, in fact, the pair have a history of strife and conflict.

Evidence for Reaction Formation

While not all defense mechanisms have held up to research scrutiny, many studies have provided convincing evidence for reaction formation.

  • In a 1998 review of the research on reaction formation, Baumeister, Dale, and Sommer found that studies demonstrated that people exhibit reaction formation and that it defends the ego, as Freud expected. Their review revealed that studies exploring everything from responses to negative feedback about the self to various forms of prejudice showed that when people's self-esteem was threatened, they would respond by claiming to believe the opposite of their true feelings.
  • For example, in one study, women who were high in sex guilt reported lower arousal levels when exposed to erotic stimuli even though physiological measures revealed they were actually more aroused than other participants.
  • Likewise, when a manipulation left participants in another study feeling completely accused of sexism and then read about a sex discrimination case in which a man was hired instead of a woman, they responded to the case by supporting harsher verdicts for the university than the control groups.
  • Similarly, when White participants in a third study who held egalitarian views were told physiological feedback showed they held racist beliefs about Blacks, they gave more to a Black panhandler after leaving the lab than those who hadn't been accused of racism.

The consistency of the results led researchers to suggest that reaction formation is "one of the more prominent and common responses to esteem threat."

More recent studies have continued to provide evidence for reaction formation.

For example, in a 2012 study, Weinstein and her colleagues used a test to measure participants' implicit sexual orientation and asked them to identify their sexual orientation explicitly. The researchers found that when there was a discrepancy between participants' implicit and explicit sexual orientation, they were more likely to regard those who identified as gay with hostility.

These participants reported greater homophobia, were more likely to endorse anti-gay policies and measured higher implicit hostility towards gay individuals—a potent demonstration of reaction formation.  

How to Address Reaction Formation

Working with a counselor or therapist to identify a reaction formation means you will have to recognize thoughts and impulses you may likely find uncomfortable. The purpose is to explore and ultimately accept the underlying thoughts or impulses that caused the anxiety which led to the reaction formation in the first place. This can be a challenging and drawn-out process.

For example, an individual may come across as friendly and easy-going, yet in reality, dislike most of their friends. A counselor would help the individual identify the discrepancy between their feelings and behavior, explore why their dislike of their friends causes anxiety, and then help them accept their true feelings.

7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  4. Morokoff P. Effects of sex guilt, repression, sexual "arousability," and sexual experience on female sexual arousal during erotica and fantasyJ Pers Soc Psychol. 1985;49(1):177-187. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.49.1.177

  5. Sherman SJ, Gorkin L. Attitude bolstering when behavior is inconsistent with central attitudesJ Exp Soc Psychol. 1980;16(4):388-403. doi:10.1016/0022-1031(80)90030-x

  6. Dutton D, Lake R. Threat of own prejudice and reverse discrimination in interracial situationsJ Pers Soc Psychol. 1973;28(1):94-100. doi:10.1037/h0035582

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By Cynthia Vinney
Cynthia Vinney, PhD is an expert in media psychology and a published scholar whose work has been published in peer-reviewed psychology journals.