Reaction Formation: Understanding This Defense Mechanism

‘The lady doth protest too much, methinks.’- William Shakespeare

What is Reaction Formation Psychology?

Reaction formation psychology is the psychological explanation for why certain people act in the entirely opposite way than how they really want to behave. Reaction formation psychology explains that this behavior is derived out of embarrassment or shame, as the desired actions are generally viewed as wrong and socially unacceptable. The individual may feel the only way to remain ‘safe’ is to keep their true feelings under wraps.

Reaction formation psychology was originally a theory from psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud. Later, Freud’s daughter, Anna, expanded on her father’s findings as well as explored his additional defense mechanism theories. After Anna documented her findings, criminologist Albert K. Cohen used the theories to further explain gang-related behavior and crime.

In order to fully comprehend this psychological theory and ways that it can be used to describe many behaviors, let’s dive into what we are really dealing with in terms of reaction formation.

Reaction Formation Definition

Reaction formation is a type of psychological defense mechanism. It is the act of transforming feelings that are uncomfortable or socially disturbing into something more controllable and acceptable. The individual seeks to cover up their own opinion by adopting the polar opposite stance on whatever matter is at hand.

While the individual using a reaction formation tactic may feel that they are fitting in with societal norms, outsiders often see their behavior as being grossly exaggerated and compulsive (meaning the urge to react is too strong for the individual to hold back).

Reaction formation may also be characterized as being ‘inflexible.’ The inflexibility is caused by the fear that the truth may be revealed. In order to make sure this never happens, the individual will act a certain way all the time, often obsessing over it.

The behavior may come off to bystanders as a performance as the individual attempts to not only convince themselves, but those around them (which rarely proves to be successful). This exaggeration often comes from overcompensating for the guilt that the individual feels.

You may also see reaction formation when it comes to an individual wanting to avoid some sort of social punishment or for fear of social criticism for their different thoughts.

Reaction Formation Example

Examples of reaction formation can vary from seeming relatively innocent to closely resembling full-blown sociopathic behavior.


For instance, a homosexual individual who fears society finding out about their orientation may have a number of heterosexual affairs, flirt with women, and be very open about criticizing homosexuals.

If the individual believes their sexual orientation is sinful and feels guilty about their desires, as they try to convince others that they are not that way, they may also be subconsciously trying to convince themselves.

The individual may go to risky lengths in order to prove or disprove whatever it is that they feel is socially acceptable. Again, this is where the “performance” aspect comes into play. A typical heterosexual man may look at a homosexual man’s behavior and question what they are doing. The exaggeration seems like the “normal” thing to do for the individual trying to hide their true reality. However, from anyone else’s standpoint, it is far from the norm.

This behavior may be done consciously or on a subconscious level where the individual does not realize the real cause of their actions.

Reaction Formation in the Workplace

Another basic example is that in the workplace. Let’s say that an individual has a total disagreement with their coworker. Instead of being up in arms, the individual strangely acts friendly and respectful towards them, yet not in a mature way, but in an ‘I want to rip their head off but society says that’s a no-no’ type of way. It will be exaggerated and seem entirely insincere. However, to the individual who is behaving in this manner, it will seem like the appropriate and necessary measures to take in order to make sure no one realizes their true desires.

“Kill them with kindness”

A milder example of the psychological theory can be found in a phrase we have all heard at one point or another: “Kill them with kindness.” While the underlying message is hopefully pointing out that two wrongs don’t make a right or negativity only breeds more negativity, at the end of the day, a type of reaction formation is involved.

A Little Shakspeare for You

Additionally, a reaction formation that is seen quite often is when an alcoholic or an addict of some form preaches about the righteousness and morals of abstinence. For one reason or anyone, the excessive behavior of fully adopting the opposite stance on the matter makes individuals feel that they are fooling everyone else as well as fooling themselves.

Lastly, only because it’s the first thing we mentioned, Shakespeare was onto something when he wrote, ‘The lady doth protest too much, methinks.’ Before reaction formation was coined a psychological theory, William Shakespeare wrote the infamous line in his play, Hamlet. The line states exactly what we have been discussing – the individual is acting, or protesting, in such an elaborate, excessive way that it is clear to everyone around them that what they are saying is insincere and untrue.

Defense Mechanism

Defense mechanisms are unconsciously provoked psychological strategies. An individual uses defense mechanisms in order to avoid anxiety and repercussions from feelings or thoughts that society deems as unacceptable.

Again, these psychological strategies are not under the individual’s conscious control.

An individual may use defense mechanisms when feeling threatened or when the id or superego becomes too much to manage.

Speaking of ego, ego-defense mechanisms are actually pretty common and normal. However, when these defense mechanisms get out of control, things also get messy. Neurosis, such as frequently varying anxiety states, certain phobias, obsessions, and even hysteria may occur.

Other Defense Mechanism

Now, let’s briefly talk about the other forms of defense mechanisms, as there a number of them. We believe it’s always best to be informed of what you or others may be dealing with.


Repression is actually the first defense mechanism that Freud discovered. Many psychologists argue it is the most important.

Repression is the unconscious act of the ego that works to keep threatening thoughts from becoming conscious.  Repression often involves painful memories or sexual urges. The thoughts revolving around repression would result in feelings of guilt and embarrassment if they were to become conscious.


Freud’s daughter, Anna, proposed that denial involves obstructing external events from one’s perception of their own reality. In other words, denying that certain things exist, often because the individual experiencing the events does not what to deal with them.

For example, someone who smokes cigarettes may deny the negative health issues directly associated with smoking.


Projection involves taking the unwanted, negative feelings that you may be feeling and placing them on someone else.

Commonly, projection occurs when an individual is feels threatened by their own angry thoughts. In turn, the individual accuses others of harboring hateful thoughts.


Displacement is the redistribution of an impulse onto something or someone that is often less powerful. More times than not the impulse is aggression.

For example, an individual may have a bad day at work but not be able to act out. Therefore, they come home and punch a hole through the wall or hit the dog.


Sublimation is similar to displacement in that it is the redistribution of an impulse. However, instead of redistributing it destructively, the individual uses it constructively.

Most commonly, individuals who use sublimation find artistic ways of redistributing their impulses.


To regress is defined as to return to a less developed state. Therefore, we see regression in cases where an individual feels frightened by an event. This results in their behavior becoming childlike or primitive.

For example, a newly married woman fights with her husband then runs home to her own mom and dad. Another example is when an adolescent regresses back to sucking their thumb when they feel uncomfortable.

Reaction Formation – More Common Than You May Have Thought

You may not have heard of term reaction formation before reading this article. However, you have most likely witnessed the behavior before. Over-the-top, exaggerated opinions are typically hard to ignore.

An individual using the reaction formation defense mechanism may be challenging to accept. More so once you realize their strong opinions are based in a disingenuous place. However, understanding why an individual behaves in a certain way is a positive start to finding sympathy for them.

It is important to know what to look out for. Additionally, realizing that if something doesn’t seem to add up, it probably doesn’t.


author avatar
Angel Rivera
I am a Bilingual (Spanish) Psychiatrist with a mixture of strong clinical skills including Emergency Psychiatry, Consultation Liaison, Forensic Psychiatry, Telepsychiatry and Geriatric Psychiatry training in treatment of the elderly. I have training in EMR records thus very comfortable in working with computers. I served the difficult to treat patients in challenging environments in outpatient and inpatient settings
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