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Defensive Denial and the societal "Age of Denial"

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"Nothing is so difficult as not deceiving oneself" (Ludwig Wittgenstein, 1938). Depth psychologist Sigmund Freud's [1] fundamental contribution in his psychoanalytic psychology and treatment is that it is dynamically not what we know about ourselves that is the problem -- but what we don't know or don't want to know. Freud's psychoanalysis (a term first used in 1896) is a theory of the mind based on conscious/known and unconscious/disowned/unknown dynamics. It is a developmental structural and functional psychology of the psyche, or mind. Freud believed that defenses could be conscious or unconscious.[2] Self-protective psychological defense mechanisms include regression, denial, projection, repression, displacement, condensation, and sublimation, among others that have been described in the literature.[3] Regression, denial and projection are understood to be the most basic and distorting psychological defenses because perception of reality is altered. In denial, Ana Freud[4] observed that there is forgetting or misinterpretation of external perceptions that may be warded-off because of wishful thinking and/or avoidance. To the extreme, in psychosis, the individual denies realities of the external world and believes his/her own 'overpowering instincts' (S. Freud, 1924[5]. A denial of anxiety or guilt may involve either denial of the existence of the threat or denial that one feels threatened. The concept of denial was expanded from perception of external realities to include internal stimuli (i.e., [unacceptable] thoughts, feelings and wishes (S. Freud, 1925[6]; Fenichel 1945)[7] Freud's editor Strachey urged use of the term 'disavowal' instead of denial.[8] Thus, Freud's three adversaries of the ego (or the "I/Self") are the id ("primal unconscious"), the superego ("Over 'I'" - internalized parental/societal/cultural mores) and the world. Freud[9] discussed splitting of the ego in a conflict having two contradictory reactions. Contemporary theorists add considerations of splitting between contradictory feelings, thoughts and self-concepts.[10][11]). For example, a devoutly Christian individual who is at the same time blatantly racist and acting-out racist hostility. Kernberg[12] discusses higher and lower levels of denial. What is noted is that denial, like other psychological defenses, can be in the service not only of avoidance [disavowal] of painful thoughts and feelings (e.g., anxiety, depression, shame and [developmentally later] guilt, envy, lust, and hatred) but also to maintain a positive self-representation and emotional balance and mood. Denial appears to be an age-appropriate psychological defense in young children. Rene Spitz[13], a famous psychoanalyst and child researcher, even proposed that the infantile prototype for denial was the reactive eye closing of children, seemingly to make something 'not be there' (c.f., Moll & Khalulyan[14]).

Experimental research and use of the term Defensive Denial

In a groundbreaking set of experimental studies of non-clinical subjects, Shedler, Mayman & Manis[15] report that defensive denial of psychological distress (using Eysenck Neuroticism and Beck Depression scales) was associated with clinician ratings of distress, verbal defense, and greater cardiac and autonomic reactivity in "defensive deniers" compared with manifestly distressed subjects and healthy controls. Cramer and Block[16] reported a 20-year longitudinal study finding that for males, but not females, young men's age-inappropriate use of denial was predicted by low ego resiliency and psychological difficulties (emotions, impulse control, intellect, and social interactions) observed when the boys were 3-4 years old. Similarly, in a sample of 473 university students, Petraglia, Thygesen, Lecours et al.[17] found males scored significantly higher than females on disavowal defenses.

Defensive Denial and the societal 'Age of Denial'

From the backdrop of the current national and international zeitgeist of pressing social issues, polarized politics including "fake news," conspiracy theories and disinformation campaigns; with much of social awareness coming from social media, especially for younger groups -- commentators, including alliances of scientists, have referred to a current "Age of Denial" we are living in. Physics and astronomy professor Adam Frank[18] in an article titled "Welcome to the Age of Denial" comments on state planners being banned from using climate data in projections about future sea levels, and of scientists receiving death threats for their research on climate change. Reportedly most scientists consider climate change one of our greatest challenges, if not the greatest -- even though only about 48% of U.S. adults believe the scientific consensus.[19] More recently, an international group of 17 leading scientists[20] have issued a dire warning for humanity "in denial of a looming collapse of civilization as we know it -- a ghostly future of mass extinction, declining health, and climate disruption upheavals (including looming massive migrations), and resource conflicts." Similarly, Haque[21] in an article titled "The Age of Denial" describes "the big four problems in the world today" as: (1) climate change; (2) stagnation; (3) inequality; and (4) fascism [authoritarianism, extremism, etc.]. He maintains that denial is the 'great mental plague' of today radiating outwards. Another powerful demonstration of the level of pernicious societal denial is to be found in Holocaust denial, in which deniers deny that they are Holocaust deniers and prefer to call themselves "historical revisionists." They intend to rewrite history by denying, ignoring or minimizing historical facts. This is conscious denial. A recent 50-state survey of 18-39 year-olds on Holocaust knowledge[22] reports that one in ten believed the Holocaust never happened and almost 25% believed it is a myth or exaggeration. These findings were not attributable to lack of knowledge because 49% of respondents endorsed seeing Holocaust denial or distortion on social media. In another and previous era, with Fascist and Nazi violence spreading in Europe, and widespread denial foreshadowing World War II, there was an open letter exchange (1932) on "Why War?"[23] between Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud. Einstein implicated the human lust for hatred and destruction, the 'collective psychosis' of war... "called into action by a small but determined ruling class, in every nation, indifferent to social considerations and restraints, and regarding war as an occasion to advance personal interests and authority." Freud responded that this is due to man's 'instinct for hatred and aggression" that is easily channeled toward an 'enemy.' Freud concluded that cultural development (civilization) is the antidote at work against the human aggressive instinct, and war. Historian Peter Gay[24] commented on the exchange: "...a contagious war psychosis... how susceptible to collective regression presumably sensible and educated people can be." The same can be said for denial and projection, as well as repression, of the past and history. For examples, the Armenian genocide (1915-1923), the U.S. government's buffalo extermination (of 40 million buffalo 1830-1885) as a solution to the country's "Indian problem" (Phippen)[25]; the Tulsa Race Massacre (1921), and most recently the Covid-19 epidemic "hoax", and the Capitol Riot conspiracy of January 6, 2021 being compared to a "capitol tour group," among many other citable examples of individual, collective and societal defensive denial. There is even a legal term "defensive denial" that has been described for the U.S. Supreme Court's voting strategies through the Court's history: A justice engages in defensive denial as a strategy by voting to deny review of a lower court decision, even if believing the case is 'certworthy', because the justice is concerned the court will reach the wrong decision and produce a bad precedent (Perry, 1991)[26]


  1. Freud, Sigmund (1894). "The defense neuropsychoses". The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. III (1964): 60.
  2. Erdelyi, M.H. (2001). "Defense processes can be conscious or unconscious". American Psychologist. 56 (9): 761–762. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.56.9.761. PMID 11558361.
  3. Fine, Reuben (1979). The History of Psychoanalysis. New York: Columbia University Press. p. 295-296. Search this book on
  4. Freud, Ana (1936). The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense. New York: International Universities Press. p. 47. Search this book on
  5. Freud, Sigmund (1924). The loss of Reality in Neurosis and Psychosis (1987 ed.). London: Penguin Books. p. 219-226. Search this book on
  6. Sigmund, Freud (1925). "Negation". Standard Edition. XVIIII: 235-239.
  7. Fenichel, Otto (1945). The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis. New York: Norton. p. 144-146. Search this book on
  8. Fine, Reuben (1979). A History of Psychoanalysis. New York: Columbia University Press. p. 295-296. Search this book on
  9. Freud, Sigmund (1940). "Splitting of the ego in the process of defense". Standard Edition. XXIII: 275-278.
  10. Fenichel, Otto (1945). The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis. New York: Norton. p. 145. Search this book on
  11. Kernberg, Otto (1975). Borderline Conditions and Pathological Narcissism. New York: Aronson. p. 32. Search this book on
  12. Kernberg, Otto (1975). Borderline Conditions and Pathological Narcissism. New York: Aronson. p. 32. Search this book on
  13. Spitz, Rene (1961). "Some early prototypes of ego defenses". Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association. 9 (4): 626–651. doi:10.1177/000306516100900403. PMID 13915855. Unknown parameter |s2cid= ignored (help)
  14. Moll, Khalulyan, Henrike, Allie (2017). ""Not see, not hear, not speak." Preschoolers think they cannot perceive or address others without reciprocity". Journal of Cognition and Development. 18 (1): xxx. doi:10.1080/15248372.2016.1243116. Unknown parameter |s2cid= ignored (help)
  15. Shedler, Mayman, Manis, jxx, Marin, Mxxx (1993). "The illusion of mental health". American Psychologist. 18 (11): 117-1131.CS1 maint: Multiple names: authors list (link)
  16. Cramer, Block, Phoebe, Jack (1998). "Preschool antecedents of defense mechanisms use in young adults: A longitudinal study". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 74 (1): 159–169. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.74.1.159. PMID 9457780.
  17. Petraglia, Thygeses, Lecours, Drapeau, Jonathan, Kylie Louise, Serge, Martin (2009). "Gender differences in self-reported defense mechanisms: A study using the new Defense Style Questionnaire-60". American Journal of Psychotherapy. 63 (1): 87–99. doi:10.1176/appi.psychotherapy.2009.63.1.87. PMID 19425336.CS1 maint: Multiple names: authors list (link)
  18. Frank, Adam (April 21, 2013). "Welcome to the Age of Denial". New York Times.
  19. Gross, L (2018). "Confronting climate change in the age of denial". PLOS Biol. 16 (10): e3000033. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.3000033. PMC 6177123. PMID 30300346.
  20. Bradshaw, Ehrlich, Beattie..., Corey J.A., Paul R., Andrew (January 13, 2021). "Underestimating the challenges of avoiding a ghastly future". Frontiers in Conservation Science. 1. doi:10.3389/fcosc.2020.615419.CS1 maint: Multiple names: authors list (link)
  21. Haque, Umair. "The Age of Denial".
  22. "U.S. Millennial Holocaust Knowledge and Awareness Survey". 13 August 2020.
  23. "Why War?". International Institute of Intellectual Cooperation. 11 June 2018.
  24. Gay, Peter (1988). Freud. A Life for our Time. New York: Norton. p. 488. Search this book on
  25. Phippen, J. Weston (May 13, 2016). ""Kill every buffalo you can! Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone"". The Atlantic.
  26. Perry, H.W. (1991). Deciding to Decide: Agenda Setting in the United States Supreme Court. Cambridge Mass: Harvard University Press. p. Chapter 7. Search this book on

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