Defense Mechanisms – MCAT Psychology | MedSchoolCoach

Theories of Personality: Defense Mechanisms

MCAT Psychology - Chapter 7- Section 1 - Personality & Identity - Personality Formation
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Sample MCAT Question - Theories of Personality: Defense Mechanisms

Which statement best represents Freud’s view of defense mechanisms?

a) Everybody uses and is dependent on defense mechanisms

b) Everybody uses defense mechanisms but may or may not be dependent on them

c) People rarely use or depend on defense mechanisms

d) People rarely use defense mechanisms, and those who do are dependent on them

B is correct. Freud believed that everyone uses defense mechanisms to cope with unresolved conflicts between the id and superego. A is incorrect. While everyone uses defense mechanisms, not everyone is dependent on them to function properly in society. C and D are incorrect. Freud believed that everyone uses defense mechanisms on a regular basis to defend against socially unacceptable thoughts and behaviors. Using defense mechanisms is not in and of itself maladaptive or abnormal, but, Freud argues, being dependent on them is.

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Defense Mechanisms for the MCAT

In the intricate landscape of the human mind, defense mechanisms emerge as powerful psychological tools that aid in the protection and preservation of our mental well-being. Derived from psychoanalytic theory, defense mechanisms serve as unconscious strategies employed to mitigate anxiety and cope with the complexities of life. They act as psychological shields, shielding us from uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, and experiences that might otherwise overwhelm us. As integral components of the broader psychoanalytic framework, defense mechanisms play a vital role in shaping our perceptions, interactions, and overall personality. This article seeks to explain everything you need to know about defense mechanisms for the MCAT exam. 


Defense Mechanisms

Feud believed that our structure of personality has three components: the id, the ego, and the superego. The ego must balance the id, which seeks gratification, and the superego, which seeks moral perfection. According to Freud, when the ego struggles to reconcile the Id and the superego, this results in internal conflicts. While most internal conflicts are resolved quickly, some last longer, resulting in anxiety that distresses the individual. In these cases, the ego employs defense mechanisms to protect the individual from this anxiety. There’s quite a lot of defense mechanisms, and you can classify them as either mature, such as denial, or immature, such as sublimation. 


We will start by going over a few immature defense mechanisms. First, we have denial. This is all about ignoring unpleasant thoughts or feelings, or at least excluding them from conscious awareness. So as an example, you can have a person who is in significant financial debt, but they continue to buy expensive clothes and cars. 


Next, we have identification. This is the act of internalizing aspects of others. An example would be a child who develops the same behaviors as their parents. This is also an immature defense mechanism.


Projection is another immature defense mechanism. Projection is the act of attributing one’s own thoughts or feelings to another person or group. An example is a child who hates their classmate; however the child thinks that they like their classmate and it’s their classmate that hates them. So essentially, the child thinks, “it’s not that I hate my classmate, it’s my classmate that hates me.” Yet the child does hate their classmate. 


Another immature defense mechanism is regression. Regression occurs when one reverts to an immature behavior at an earlier stage of psychosexual development. An example is a person at a restaurant who throws a tantrum because the restaurant has run out of the dessert they want. 



The last immature defense mechanism is repression, which is keeping distressing thoughts buried in the unconscious. An example would be a soldier who has no recollection of a traumatic event that occurred at war. 


Now, let’s look at mature defense mechanisms. A key distinguishing factor between immature and mature defense mechanisms being that not everyone is capable of deploying mature defense mechanisms. 


First, we have displacement. Displacement is the transfer of emotional feelings from the original target to a substitute target. An example would be a child who is angry at their sibling, but rather than hitting their sibling, the child goes and breaks their toy. In this case, the child is transferring their feelings of anger from their original subject, their sibling, to a substitute target, the toy. 


Next, we have rationalization. Rationalization consists of giving logical reasons for unacceptable behavior. An example would be a student cheating on an exam because “everyone does it.” Their logical reason that everyone does it allows them to justify the unacceptable behavior of cheating on the exam. 

Reaction Formation

We also have reaction formation. This is denying one’s true feelings and behaving in the exact opposite way. This has been demonstrated with homophobes. Homophobes often mistreat gay individuals, and it’s been found that many of these homophobes actually have homosexual desires. So essentially, they’re denying their true feelings. They’re denying their homosexual desires, and instead they’re acting in the opposite way and mistreating gay individuals.


Finally, we have sublimation. This is channeling unacceptable sexual or aggressive drives into socially acceptable actions. An example is if someone who is angry decides to play football instead of acting out their anger in a socially unacceptable manner. So, football is a way for them to channel their feelings of anger, their aggression. 

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