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Reaction Formation in Psychology: Definition & Example

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  • 0:01 What Is Reaction Formation?
  • 1:26 Theories
  • 2:43 Examples
  • 3:58 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David White
Reaction formation can be a fascinating and sometimes confusing defense mechanism that many people experience. Through this lesson, you will learn how to define reaction formation and explore some examples from the real world.

What Is Reaction Formation?

A popular figure of speech is the phrase 'the lady doth protest too much.' Taken from Shakespeare's Hamlet, the saying is often used to refer to people who appear to be dramatically, and emphatically, opposed to something in an effort to hide their true feelings or desires.

In psychology, this type of behavior is known as a reaction formation, and it can, at times, be very confusing. Reaction formation is a kind of psychological defense mechanism in which a person perceives their true feelings or desires to be socially, or in some cases, legally unacceptable, and so they attempt to convince themselves or others that the opposite is true--often in a very exaggerated performance.

If this description seems confusing, consider this example. A teenager comes to the conclusion that he is gay, but because he was raised in a family that believes being gay is a serious sin, he feels the need to hide his homosexuality. Because he believes that his sexual orientation is sinful or unacceptable, he goes to great lengths to prove to everyone around him (and possibly himself) that he is stereotypically heterosexual. This might manifest itself in risky sexual behaviors with multiple people, using homophobic language and slurs, or other types of exaggerated performance. In most cases, reaction formation is very easy to identify. It often appears hyper, unreasonable, and obviously showy in order to attract as much attention as possible.

Theories

It's believed that reaction formation develops as a way to cope with the pressure and stress caused by the original feeling that they have identified as being bad and with the possibility of their true feelings or desires being discovered. For example, if a person has a particular sexual fetish that they feel is shameful, they may take every opportunity to condemn those who share the fetish in order to demonstrate to others that they are 'normal.'

People that rely on this technique tend to see many things in terms of binary opposition, which is when concepts and ideas exist on opposite ends of a polar system. For example, rather than understanding that there are varying degrees of good and bad, they would only see things as either good or bad, with nothing in between. This perspective causes the individual to be very inflexible, which is why the behavior often seems cartoonish and disingenuous.

It's important to point out that this behavior isn't the same as lying or being deceitful. In cases of reaction formation, the feelings associated with the perceived negative behavior are so strong and anxiety-provoking that the reaction can be compulsive, which means that the urge to react is too strong to be controlled. Moreover, because of their inflexibility, they may feel compelled to behave this way all of the time in order to ensure that the truth is never revealed.

Examples

The examples we have looked at so far may seem like very serious or pathological issues, but reaction formation is actually much more common than you might think. 'Killing someone with kindness,' for example, is a kind of reaction formation because you are being overly-nice to someone in order to hide the fact that you actually greatly dislike the person. In this case, the thought of telling the person how you feel about them, or letting it be known, causes discomfort and makes you cover it up.

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