How we change what others think, feel, believe and do
Reaction Formation occurs when a person feels an urge to do or say something and then actually does or says something that is effectively the opposite of what they really want.
It also appears as a defense against a feared social punishment. If I fear that I will be criticized for something, I very visibly act in a way that shows I am personally a long way from the feared position.
A common pattern in Reaction Formation is where the person uses ‘excessive behavior’, for example using exaggerated friendliness when the person is actually feeling unfriendly.
A person who is angry with a colleague actually ends up being particularly courteous and friendly towards them.
A man who is gay has a number of conspicuous heterosexual affairs and openly criticizes gays.
A mother who has a child she does not want becomes very protective of the child.
An alcoholic extols the virtues of abstinence.
A cause of Reaction Formation is when a person seeks to cover up something unacceptable by adopting an opposite stance. For example the gay person who has heterosexually promiscuous may be concealing their homosexual reality. This may be a conscious concealment but also may well occur at the subconscious level such that they do not realize the real cause of their behavior. Reaction Formation thus can turn homosexual tendencies (love men) to homophobic ones (hate men).
Freud called the exaggerated compensation that can appear in Reaction Formation ‘overboarding’ as the person is going overboard in one direction to distract from and cover up something unwanted in the other direction, such as a person who fears war becoming a pacifist, convincing themselves that war is wrong (rather than the ‘cowardly’ position that war is scary).
Reaction Formation goes further than projection such that unwanted impulses and thoughts are not acknowledged.
Extreme patterns of Reaction Formation are found in paranoia and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), where the person becomes trapped in a cycle of repeating a behavior that they know (at least at a deep level) is somehow wrong.
Reaction formation is one of Anna Freud's original defense mechanisms.
When a person takes a position or stance on something, and particularly if that position is extreme, consider the possibility that their real views are opposite to this. This offers you two options in persuasion. You can either support their current position or carefully expose how their underlying tendencies are opposite (and how it is ok to admit this).
To cause a Reaction Formation pattern, show the other person that a particular behavior is socially unacceptable. Then give them the space and ideas to react against this undesirable pattern and create their own way of showing how they are actually very far away from the undesirable behavior.
In a therapeutic situation, help a person who is dysfunctionally forming contrary reactions by first create a supportive environment where they can admit and accept what is happening to themselves. Then support their changing of position to somewhere that is more acceptable and appropriate for them.
Remember that defense mechanisms are usually symptoms of deeper problems and addressing them directly can be ineffective or even counter-productive. Simply showing the person that their position is opposed to their real feelings can just cause deeper entrenchment. Before this, you should first work on their primary conflict.