Psychological projection

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Psychological projection was conceptualized by Sigmund Freud in the 1900s as a defense mechanism in which a person unconsciously rejects his or her own unacceptable attributes by ascribing them to objects or persons in the outside world.[1] For example, a person who is rude may accuse other people of being rude.

Although rooted in early developmental stages,[2] and classed by Vaillant as an immature defence,[3] the projection of one's negative qualities onto others on a small scale is nevertheless a common process in everyday life.[4]

Psychoanalytic developments[edit]

Projection was conceptualised by Freud in his letters to Wilhelm Fliess,[5] and further refined by Karl Abraham and Anna Freud. Freud considered that in projection thoughts, motivations, desires, and feelings that cannot be accepted as one's own are dealt with by being placed in the outside world and attributed to someone else.[6] What the ego repudiates is split off and placed in another.[7]

Freud would later come to believe that projection did not take place arbitrarily, but rather seized on and exaggerated an element that already existed on a small scale in the other person.[8] (The related defence of projective identification differs from projection in that there the other person is expected to become identified with the impulse or desire projected outside,[9] so that the self maintains a connection with what is projected, in contrast to the total repudiation of projection proper.)[10]

Melanie Klein saw the projection of good parts of the self as leading potentially to over-idealisation of the object.[11] Equally, it may be one's conscience that is projected, in an attempt to escape its control: a more benign version of this allows one to come to terms with outside authority.[12]

Theoretical examples[edit]

Projection tends to come to the fore in normal people at times of crisis, personal or political,[13] but is more commonly found in the neurotic or psychotic[14]—in personalities functioning at a primitive level as in narcissistic personality disorder or borderline personality disorder.[15]

Carl Jung considered that the unacceptable parts of the personality represented by the Shadow archetype were particularly likely to give rise to projection, both small-scale and on a national/international basis.[16] Marie-Louise Von Franz extended his view of projection, stating that: "... wherever known reality stops, where we touch the unknown, there we project an archetypal image".[17]

The philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach based his theory of religion in large part upon the idea of projection, that is the idea that an anthropomorphic deity is the outward projection of man's anxieties and desires.[18]

Psychological projection is one of the medical explanations of bewitchment used to explain the behavior of the afflicted children at Salem in 1692. The historian John Demos asserts that the symptoms of bewitchment experienced by the afflicted girls were due to the girls undergoing psychological projection of repressed aggression.[19]

Practical examples[edit]


Jung writes that "All projections provoke counter-projection when the object is unconscious of the quality projected upon it by the subject."[24] Thus what is unconscious in the recipient will be projected back onto the projector, precipitating a form of mutual acting out.[25]

In a rather different usage, Harry Stack Sullivan saw counter-projection in the therapeutic context as a way of warding off the compulsive re-enactment of a psychological trauma, by emphasising the difference between the current situation and the projected obsession with the perceived perpetrator of the original trauma.[26]

Clinical approaches[edit]

Drawing on Gordon Allport's idea of the expression of self onto activities and objects, projective techniques have been devised to aid personality assessment, including the Rorschach ink-blots and the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT).[27]

Projection may help a fragile ego reduce anxiety, but at the cost of a certain dissociation, as in dissociative identity disorder.[28] In extreme cases, an individual's personality may end up becoming critically depleted.[29] In such cases, therapy may be required which would include the slow rebuilding of the personality through the "taking back" of such projections.[30]


Later studies were critical of Freud's theory. Research supports the existence of a false-consensus effect whereby humans have a broad tendency to believe that others are similar to themselves, and thus "project" their personal traits onto others. This applies to good traits as well as bad traits and is not a defence mechanism for denying the existence of the trait within the self.[31]

Instead, Newman, Duff, and Baumeister (1997) proposed a new model of defensive projection. In this view, people try to suppress thoughts of their undesirable traits, and these efforts make those trait categories highly accessible—so that they are then used all the more often when forming impressions of others. The projection is then only a by-product of the real defensive mechanism.[32]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Sigmund Freud, Case Histories II (PFL 9) p. 132
  2. ^ Erik Erikson, Childhood and Society (1073) p. 240
  3. ^ R. Skynner/J. Cleese, Life and how to survive it (1994) p. 54
  4. ^ Wade, Tavris "Psychology" Sixth Edition Prentice Hall 2000 ISBN 0-321-04931-4
  5. ^ Jean-Michel Quinodoz, Reading Freud (London 2005) p. 24
  6. ^ Case Studies II p. 210
  7. ^ Otto Fenichel, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis (London 1946) p. 146
  8. ^ Sigmund Freud, On Psychopathology (PFL 10) p. 200–1
  9. ^ Patrick Casement, Further Learning from the Patient (1997) p. 177
  10. ^ Otto F. Kernberg, Borderline Conditions and Pathological Narcissism (London 1990) p. 56
  11. ^ Hanna Segal, Klein (1979) p. 118
  12. ^ R. Wollheim, On the Emotions (1999) p. 217–8
  13. ^ Erik Erikson, Childhood and Society (1973) p. 241
  14. ^ Peter Gay, Freud: A Life for Our Time, page 281n
  15. ^ Glen O. Gabbard, Long-Term Psychodynamic Psychotherapy (London 2010) p. 33
  16. ^ a b c Carl G. Jung ed., Man and his Symbols (London 1978) p. 181–2
  17. ^ Marie-Louise Von Franz (September 1972). Patterns of Creativity Mirrored in Creation Myths (Seminar series). Spring Publications. ISBN 978-0-88214-106-0.  found in: M. Gray Richard (1996). Archetypal explorations: an integrative approach to human behavior. Routledge. p. 201. ISBN 978-0-415-12117-0. 
  18. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica
  19. ^ Demos, John (1970). "Underlying Themes in the Witchcraft of Seventeenth-Century New England". American Historical Review 75 (5): 1311–1326 [p. 1322]. JSTOR 1844480. 
  20. ^ Sigmund Freud, On Psychopathology (Middlesex 1987) p. 198
  21. ^ Paul Gilbert, Overcoming Depression (1999) p. 185–6
  22. ^ Patrick Casement, Further Learning from the Patient (1990) p. 142
  23. ^ Patrick Casement, Further Learning from the Patient (1990) p. 122
  24. ^ General Aspects of Dream Psychology, CW 8, par. 519
  25. ^ Ann Casement, Carl Gustav Jung (2001) p. 87
  26. ^ F. S. Anderson ed., Bodies in Treatment (2007) p. 160
  27. ^ Semeonoff, B. (1987). "Projective Techniques". In Gregory, Richard. The Oxford Companion to the Mind. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 646. ISBN 0-19-866124-X. 
  28. ^ Trauma and Projection
  29. ^ R. Appignanesi ed., Introducing Melanie Klein (Cambridge 2006) p. 115 and p. 126
  30. ^ Mario Jacoby, The Analytic Encounter (1984) p. 10 and p. 108
  31. ^ Baumeister, Roy F.; Dale, Karen; Sommer, Kristin L. (1998). "Freudian Defence Mechanisms and Empirical Findings in Modern Social Psychology: Reaction Formation, Projection, Displacement, Undoing, Isolation, Sublimation, and Denial". Journal of Personality 66 (6): 1090–1092. doi:10.1111/1467-6494.00043. 
  32. ^ Newman, Leonard S.; Duff, Kimberley J.; Baumeister, Roy F. (1997). "A new look at defensive projection: Thought suppression, accessibility, and biased person perception". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 72 (5): 980–1001. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.72.5.980. 

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