Toward an Integrative Theory of Psychological Defense

Perspect Psychol Sci. 2014 Jan;9(1):19-39. doi: 10.1177/1745691613506018.


According to theories of "psychological defense," humans are motivated to protect themselves against various types of psychological threat, including death awareness, uncertainty, and other inherently anxiety-provoking experiences. Protective mechanisms include strengthening close relationships; maintaining appraisals of self-worth, accomplishment, and agency; and cultivating meaningful views of the world. Thus, defensiveness theories incorporate research from many areas of psychology (e.g., information-processing biases, attitudes, and interpersonal and intergroup relations), to help explain why people think, feel, and act in the diverse ways that they do. Currently, the study of psychological defense is hindered by contradictory empirical results and a proliferation of theories that make very similar predictions. This article examines a cross-section of defensiveness theories and research, highlighting conclusions that can be drawn and areas where conceptual and research problems linger. It suggests that the field needs methodological innovation (e.g., more reliable and valid manipulations and measures of unconscious constructs, more diverse methodological approaches), a more complete and reliable body of data, and some fresh new ideas from psychological scientists across disciplines.

Keywords: meaning; psychological defense; relational needs; self-esteem; terror management.