Projection Definition and History
Many biases affect the impressions people form of each other, and a great deal of work by social psychologists explores those biases. For example, people often do not take into account how others’ behaviors are constrained by the situations they are in (the fundamental attribution error). Impressions can also be biased and distorted because of the influence of stereotypes. Yet another bias—and a more subtle one—is the tendency for people to see in others characteristics that they are motivated to deny in themselves. For example, a woman tempted to cheat on a test might accuse others of dishonesty, a man with unwanted sexual fantasies and desires might become obsessed with the immorality of his neighbors, and another with an urge to commit violence against someone might come to believe that the other person is the potential aggressor. All these hypothetical cases are examples of projection—specifically, defensive projection (also sometimes referred to as direct or classical projection).
Sigmund Freud provided some of the earliest descriptions of projection, and his daughter Anna Freud further elaborated on his ideas. As a result, defensive projection is strongly associated with psychoanalytic theory. For psychoanalysts, projection was one of many defense mechanisms (along with repression, denial, reaction formation, and others)—psychological processes used to help people avoid becoming aware of anxiety-provoking thoughts or feelings.
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Outside of psychoanalytic circles, though, the phenomenon was long viewed with a great deal of skepticism. Experimental social psychologists in particular doubted the very existence of defensive projection. The difficulty of figuring out how to study projection in a careful and systematic way was only part of the problem. Further complicating matters was confusion about how to define the phenomenon. For example, some argued that projection of a trait required actually possessing that trait. Unfortunately, it is not clear how to establish that a person can unambiguously be characterized by traits such as dishonesty, lustfulness, or aggressiveness. Still other researchers insisted that lack of awareness was a necessary characteristic of projection. It was never clear, though, what the awareness criterion referred to: Not being aware that one has a characteristic? Not being aware that one despises the characteristic? Not being aware that one is attributing the characteristic to another person? Not being aware that one’s attribution of the trait to another person is a function of one’s own motivation to deny the trait?
Contemporary Research on Projection
In the 1990s, however, projection was revived as a topic of study, and several studies support a general account of how it comes about. Although many unfavorable traits are almost universally disliked, individual people might be motivated to avoid and deny some of them more than others would. One person might desperately want not to be seen as incompetent; another might be most motivated to steer clear of dishonesty; still another might most despise cowardliness. Unfortunately, human behavior being as complex, ambiguous, and multidetermined as it is, it is hard to avoid ever doing, saying, thinking, or feeling anything that might be seen as evidence that one has a hated trait. One way of dealing with the distress that results is to simply try not to think about that evidence—that is, to suppress thoughts about the trait and about the possibility that it might at least to some extent characterize one’s behavior. For example, one might try to forget about a nasty comment one just made and try to avoid thinking about how making such a comment suggests at least a certain amount of nastiness. Unfortunately, a great deal of research suggests that thought suppression can backfire. In other words, directly trying not to think about something can lead those thoughts to be harder to avoid than if one had never tried to suppress them. As a result, thoughts about the trait will have a tendency to pop into mind when interacting with other people, and therefore, it will dominate the impressions one forms of others. It should be noted that this account does not require a person to objectively possess a trait before he or she can project it; it is enough that people just be strongly motivated to deny it and be vigilant for any traces of it in their behavior.
Research supports the claim that efforts to deny a trait increase the likelihood that people will come to believe that others can be labeled with that very trait. In addition, people with a general and long-standing tendency to suppress thoughts (people known as repressors) project more than others. Finally, recent research has begun to address the possibility (long suggested by students of intergroup relations) that stereotypes and prejudices can develop as a result of defensive projection.
Projection is seen as a defense mechanism. That can mean at least two different things. Projection is related to defense in that it results from people’s efforts to defend themselves against the possibility of perceiving themselves in certain ways. In other words, it comes about as a result of the suppression of threatening thoughts. But does projection itself work as a defense—that is, do people feel better about themselves and experience less anxiety as a result of projecting unwanted traits onto others? Recent research suggests that projection can be considered to be a defense in that sense as well. People have been found to report more positive self-concepts and less distress after they are led to project.
Many people seem to have pet peeves about the deficiencies of their fellow human beings. Some people gripe about others’ stupidity and laziness, some are struck by others’ cruelty, and others are flabbergasted at the selfishness they see around them. Research on defensive projection suggests that these tendencies often are more revealing of the observers’ anxieties and fears about themselves than they are about the nature of the people that arouse their disgust.
- Newman, L. S., & Caldwell, T. L. (2005). Allport’s “Living Inkblots”: The role of defensive projection in stereotyping and prejudice. In J. F. Dovidio, P. Glick, & L. A. Rudman (Eds.), On the nature of prejudice: 50years after Allport (pp. 377-392). Malden, MA: Blackwell.
- Newman, L. S., Duff, K. J., & Baumeister, R. F. (1997). A new look at defensive projection: Thought suppression, accessibility, and biased person perception. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 72, 980-1001.
- Schimel, J., Greenberg, J., & Martens, A. (2003). Evidence that projection of a feared trait can serve a defensive function. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29, 969-979.