How our defence mechanisms change from childhood to adolescence

Freud’s notion that we use defence mechanisms to protect our self-esteem has fallen out of favour in mainstream psychology, but research in this area continues. Now Phebe Cramer reports that as we mature from late childhood into adulthood, we rely less on ‘denial’ (ignoring upsetting thoughts) and instead use progressively more ‘projection’ and ‘identification’. Projection describes the habit of removing our own disturbing thoughts by attributing them to someone else, whereas identification is changing ourselves to become more like someone we admire.

Seventy-one participants completed the thematic apperception test (TAT) when they were aged 11, 12 and 18, as part of the Berkeley Guidance Study, which started in 1928. The TAT requires participants to look at a simple, ambiguous drawing, for example of a man turning away from a woman, and to tell the story of what happened before, during and after the scene. A participant’s use of defence mechanisms is inferred from the stories they tell (pdf). For example, if the participant failed to mention the state of a woman who was clearly shown to be pregnant, this would be coded as an instance of denial; if a character was described as being embarrassed without there being any obvious reason for this in the picture, it would be coded as projection.

Cramer found that denial was the least commonly observed defence mechanism among this sample. This contrasts with studies on younger children showing they used denial the most.

And as the participants grew older they used progressively more projection and identification. At age 18, greater use of identification was association with a higher IQ. Denial also showed a resurgence at age 18 – perhaps reflecting “an adolescent’s belief that she has the power to create an environment that conforms to her wishes”, Cramer said.

Data collected more recently shows 18-year-olds actually employ identification more than projection but this wasn’t the case among the participants in this study. Cramer said this could have been because of sociocultural factors – the current sample were aged 18 in 1946, just a year after the end of World War II, when there was little time “to explore different avenues of identity development”.

Cramer, P. (2007). Longitudinal study of defence mechanisms: Late childhood to late adolescence. Journal of Personality, 75, 1-23.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.