If We Don’t Feel Socially Accepted, We Get More Defensive When We’ve Done Something Wrong

By Emily Reynolds

When you’ve done something wrong, big or small, it can be hard to own up to it — particularly if you feel you’ve transgressed a moral or social code. Instead, you might avoid confronting the issue and become defensive. Yet defensiveness often has negative consequences anyway: it can hurt someone else’s feelings, cloud your ability to make a good decision in the moment, or prevent you from changing harmful behaviours.

But why do we get defensive, and what can we do to minimise those negative consequences? A new study from Michael Wenzel and colleagues at Flinders University, published in the British Journal of Social Psychology, asks both of these questions — and finds that defensiveness could be reduced by affirming people’s moral and social worth.

In the first study, 187 participants were asked to recall an incident in which they had wronged somebody else, writing a brief description of what they had done. They then rated how severe the transgression was, the importance of their relationship with the person they had wronged, how guilty they felt and how much they accepted blame (e.g. “I wasn’t the one to blame for what happened”), and how loved and accepted they felt despite any wrongdoing.

Participants then took part in an implicit guilt test, a version of the (controversial) Implicit Association Test. This essentially looked at how quick participants were to categorise self-related words (e.g. “me”) when they also had to press the same key to categorise guilt-related words (e.g. “blame”) versus when they had to press the same key to categorise innocence-related words (e.g. “virtue”). If they were faster for the former, this was taken as an implicit association of the self with guilt.

The results suggested that those participants who felt a higher need for belonging were more likely to engage in defensiveness: the more “implicit” guilt they showed on the test, the less likely they were to assert that they were to blame for the incident they outlined. Those who felt socially accepted, on the other hand, were more likely to express explicit guilt as their level of implicit guilt increased.

In the second study, omnivorous participants were shown a short video about cruelty within the egg and meat industry before speaking to a bot, which either affirmed or denigrated their choice to eat meat.

Watching the video on animal cruelty led to greater guilt and concerns about moral or social transgression — but only when there was no opportunity to have that guilt assuaged through the online chat. Those participants who had received reassurance from the bot about eating meat were also more likely to explicitly express guilt that reflected their levels of implicit guilt. Those who had not received reassurance saw a greater disconnect between implicit and explicit guilt, suggesting a level of defensiveness.

Participants who had received reassurance from the bot were also more likely to donate to an animal rights organisation, while those who had not were less likely to donate the more implicit guilt they indicated. This, the team says, suggests that threats to acceptance can lead not only to increased defensiveness but also an unwillingness to repair harm.

As noted, the Implicit Association Test has faced serious scrutiny over the last few years, with some critics suggesting that the test may not be truly indicative of real-life thoughts or behaviours. The team also acknowledges that the relationship between implicit and explicit guilt may not be as straightforward as the results suggest — defensiveness may be so effective a psychological process, they write, that it may reduce or even eliminate implicit evaluations or admissions of responsibility and guilt. In other words, defensiveness may not only be an external avoidance of blame but an internal one, which individuals are not aware of themselves. External admissions of guilt may also be unreflective of true or implicit feelings of guilt — someone might profusely apologise for reasons that are more to do with social pressure than real feeling.

Still, the results suggest a key element of defensiveness is a feeling of moral or social threat. Where individuals are given affirmation, defensiveness decreases — and more efforts are made to repair harm. It may be difficult to give someone such reassurance, particularly when you’re the one they’ve harmed — but it could also be the best way of helping them truly engage with what they’ve done.

The effects of moral/social identity threats and affirmations on psychological defensiveness following wrongdoing

Emily Reynolds is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest