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In Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytic theory, reaction formation is a defense mechanism in which anxiety-producing or unacceptable emotions are replaced by their direct opposites. This mechanism is often characteristic of obsessional neuroses. When this mechanism is overused, especially during the formation of the ego, it can become a permanent character trait. This is often seen in those with obsessional character and obsessive personality disorders. This does not imply that its periodic usage is always obsessional, but that it can lead to obsessional behavior.
A man who is overly aroused by pornographic material who utilizes reaction formation may take on an attitude of criticism toward the topic. He may end up sacrificing many of the positive things in his life, including family relationships, by traveling around the country to anti-pornography rallies. This view may become an obsession, whereby the man eventually does nothing but travel from rally to rally speaking out against pornography. He continues to do this, but only feels temporary relief, because the deeply rooted arousal to an "unacceptable" behaviour such as watching pornography is still present, and underlying the implementation of the defense. At that point he can be said to have developed an obsessional personality above and beyond the defense mechanism.
An example of Freud's theory is when a "heterosexual" individual supports and maintains strong "homophobic" beliefs as a way to cover-up their deep-seated and often untouched homosexual desires. A reaction formation is used to balance the ego-id-superego emotion of this "homosexual" living as a "heterosexual" in order to relieve the individual's anxiety.
The case of prominent Congressman Mark Foley (R-Florida), in 2006, might also be considered an example of reaction formation. As chairman of the Missing and Exploited Children's Caucus, Foley had introduced legislation to protect children from exploitation by adults over the Internet. He also sponsored other legislation designed to protect minors from abuse and neglect. His resignation followed the revelation that he exchanged sexually explicit electronic messages with a teenage boy, a former congressional page, and that he had engaged in potentially inappropriate contact with pages for a number of years.
- Adams, H.E., Wright, R.W. & Lohr, B.A. (1996). Is Homophobia Associated With Homosexual Arousal? Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 105, 3, pp. 440-445.
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