Defense Mechanisms in EP


Defense Mechanisms in EP?: Nope


by James Brody




A lady of uncertain decisions but sparkling prose remarked that she loved The Adapted Mind's (Barkow et al., 1992) chapter on "defense mechanisms" (Nesse and Lloyd, 1992).

I remembered my antipathy to that same chapter but neither its content nor my reasoning and promised to give it another look.

"Defense mechanisms" grew from Freud’s scribblings, first Sigmund, then Anna (Kaplan & Sadock, 1998): that is, puns and slips of the tongue, inconsistency between what was said and what was done, differences between infant and adult behavior, and forgetting of very large, nasty experiences reflected the interference of filters and lenses, erasers and amplifiers, called projection, incorporation, denial, displacement, suppression, repression, reaction formation, sublimation, or rationalization. (I'm missing several.) That is, memory is equal and accurate for all experiences; variable recall demands services from a team of special agents.


Defense mechanisms intervene between our instinctive but shameful impulses and our conscience. Psychoanalysis collapses primitive mechanisms such as denial or projection and replaces them with new ones such as repression, symbolization, or sublimation. (Of course, defense mechanisms reproduced with each generation of practitioners. Vaillant, (1977, cited in Kaplan & Sadock, 1998)¹ for example, listed 27 of them in four clusters.) Neither time nor money was an object so long as you had plenty of both. Symptoms (e.g., a phobia) represented psychic conflict between nonverbal instincts and verbal rules about good or bad: curing the phobia but not the conflict was expected to produce "symptom substitution," that is, more phobias. Also, emotions drove thoughts and should be drained like dirty engine oil.

Problem: not one instance of symptom substitution could ever be found in controlled research. Another problem: fear of snakes could be managed simply by thinking of holding a snake until you relax and then actually holding one. Dreams and memories of early childhood became irrelevant (Franks, 1969) and we now believe that thoughts drive emotions as often as the reverse is true (Beck & Emery, 1985), and that "draining" emotions may actually make emotional outbursts more likely instead of less.

Psychoanalysis collapsed like one more primitive defense mechanism while first behaviorism and then cognitive-behavioral therapy demystified treatment for most of the fears and rituals in human experience. Psychiatry turned to medication management, defense mechanisms were adopted by clinical social workers, and behavior therapy is now done by nearly anyone, including computer programs.

Unfortunately, theoretical inertia characterizes some practitioners as much as it characterizes Rhesus potato cleaners. That is, a young Japanese macaque (Imo) discovered how to wash sand off of potatoes and quickly taught her siblings and peers: the old males, however, never did learn the new skill but still picked the sand from their potatoes and dry cereal, one grain at a time. Likewise, a small group of psychiatrists retains their concepts (e. g., defense mechanisms or personality disorders) and justifies them with evolutionary stories. (See Beck, 1998; Beck & Freeman, 1990; Millon, 1990).

The old ways might have died with their adherents where they were had not Bob Trivers reasoned through his hairline and invented "self deception." That is, we lie and we also detect lying in each other. An evolutionary contest should produce not only better liars but also liars who are better at concealing their lies, so good, in fact as to be unaware, themselves, that they were lying. Bob gave traditionalists a bridge from their original island to a new one called "evolutionary psychology," a refuge that might nurture their old beliefs. (Trivers also inspired some interesting studies, whatever you think of their explanations. See Krebs & Denton, 1997)


First, there are no measurements of "defense mechanisms." They are like Jesus, you either believe in them or you don't. And like the man's face on Mars, you will either see them or you won't. And if you believe in them, no one will talk you out of your position. (I think that a little imprinting is involved here or perhaps a genetic loading of some kind.) I suggest, for those who will believe, that modern neurology and network theory (1) describe patterns found widely from electrical networks to cellular biochemistry to neural organizations to the structure of our language (Barabasi, 2002; Strogatz, 2003) and (2) handily account for the outcomes that we traditionally ascribe to defense mechanisms but do so in a domain-specific way, open to measurement and without special agents.

Second, I'm puzzled that the Adapted Mind rails against "domain general," problem-solving algorithms but smuggles a chapter into its closing sections on the evolution of exactly those processes. Thus, we are to have modules for the specific tasks of mating and fighting but we also have erasers and amplifiers and editors that roam across our modules. (I suspect that friendships between Randy, Leda, Jerry, and John had influence.)


I'm reminded of a talk by Krebs (1998, 1999) on morality: he found it to consist of three or four stages, to be reversible but not domain general: morals shift with contexts and Kohlberg, who wanted to do for morals what Piaget tried to do for thinking, was wrong even before he committed suicide. So was Piaget about thinking.)

I'm puzzled that my Jewish Venus can be enamored of The Blank Slate (Pinker, 2002) but adore defense mechanisms that are a dozen gremlins and each one a ghost in our machine. I reject a model that says that we have a thought or impulse but hide it from our awareness. I also dismiss its adherents. According to "whatever gods may be" as well as to Max Planck and Lynn Margulis (1995), they do eventually die. g











Jim is an evolutionist and a clinical psychologist, practicing both faiths in a small but very traditional Pennsylvania community. He earned his PhD from the University of Pittsburgh in physiological-experimental psychology and has two decades' experience working in large institutions and a like amount of time in independent practice. Jim has published more than a dozen academic journal articles, as well as over 700 essays for  Behavior OnLine's Evolutionary Psychology/Clinical Sociobiology Forum, which he founded. He organized four courses on human evolution and clinical practice for the Cape Cod Institute, recruiting Robert Wright and other notables to help. He also taught evolution in church basements and has given talks to many professional organizations. Jim is self-taught in evolutionary-developmental biology, behavior genetics, and network physics and applies all three to his understanding of both psychology and human evolution. Jim is also recognized by some as the "founder of clinical sociobiology."

¹ Kaplan & Sadock, 1998, devote only 4 pages of 1401 to defense mechanisms, plus another 6 pages scattered through their Synopsis of Psychiatry.



Barabasi, A-L (2002) Linked: The New Science of Networks. NY: Perseus.

Barkow, J., Cosmides, L., & Tooby, J. (Eds.) (1992) The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture. NY: Oxford.

Beck, A. 1998. Cognitive aspects of personality disorders and their relation to syndromal disorders: A psychoevolutionary approach. In R. Cloninger (Ed.), Personality and Psychopathology. American Psychiatric Association, Washington, D. C., pp. 411-429.

Beck, A. & Emery, G. (1985) Anxiety Disorders & Phobias: A Cognitive Perspective. NY: Basic.

Beck, A., & Freeman, A. (1990) Cognitive Therapy of Personality Disorders. NY: Guilford.

Franks, C. (1969) Behavior Therapy: Appraisal and Status. NY: McGraw-Hill.

Kaplan, H. & Sadock, B. (1998) Synopsis of Psychiatry (8th Ed.). Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins.

Krebs, D. (1998) Evolution of moral behaviors. In Crawford, C., & Krebs, D. Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, pp. 337-368.

Krebs, D. (1999) Evolution of moral dispositions in the human species.  Presentation at Hunter School of Social Work, Manhattan, NY, May 5.

Krebs, D., & Denton, K. (1997) Social illusions and self-deception: The evolution of biases in person perception. In Simpson, J. & Kendrick, D. (Eds.) Evolutionary Social Psychology. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, 21-48.

Margulis, L. (1995) Gaia is a tough bitch. In Brockman, J. (Ed). The Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution. New York: Simon & Schuster, 130-140.

Millon, T. (1990) Toward a New Personology: An Evolutionary Model. NY: Wiley.

Nesse, R. & Lloyd, A. (1992) Evolution of psychodynamic mechanisms. In J. Barkow, L. Cosmides, & J. Tooby (Eds.) The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture. NY: Oxford, pp. 601-626.

Pinker, S. (2002) The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. NY: Viking.

Strogatz, S. (2003) Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order. NY: Hyperion.


Copyright by James Brody,  2003.  All rights reserved.
Copyright   ©   2003    Entelechy: Mind & Culture.  All rights reserved.