Psychological projection is a theory in psychology in which humans defend themselves against their own unconscious impulses or qualities (both positive and negative) by denying their existence in themselves while attributing them to others. For example, a person who is habitually rude may constantly accuse other people of being rude. It incorporates blame shifting.
According to some research, the projection of one’s unconscious qualities onto others is a common process in everyday life.
A prominent precursor in the formulation of the projection principle was Giambattista Vico. In 1841, Ludwig Feuerbachwas the first enlightenment thinker to employ this concept as the basis for a systematic critique of religion. The Babylon Talmud (500 CE) notes the human tendency toward projection and warns against it: “Do not taunt your neighbour with the blemish you yourself have.”
Projection (German: Projektion) was conceptualised by Sigmund Freud in his letters to Wilhelm Fliess, 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. What the ego repudiates is split off and placed in another.
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. (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, so that the self maintains a connection with what is projected, in contrast to the total repudiation of projection proper.)
Melanie Klein saw the projection of good parts of the self as leading potentially to over-idealisation of the object. 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.
Projection tends to come to the fore in normal people at times of personal or political crisis but is more commonly found in the neurotic or psychotic in personalities functioning at a primitive level as in narcissistic personality disorder or borderline personality disorder.
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. Marie-Louise Von Franz extended her view of projection, stating that “wherever known reality stops, where we touch the unknown, there we project an archetypal image”.
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.
- Victim blaming: The victim of someone else’s accident or bad luck may be offered criticism, the theory being that the victim may be at fault for having attracted the other person’s hostility.
- Projection of marital guilt: Thoughts of infidelity to a partner may be unconsciously projected in self-defence on to the partner in question, so that the guiltattached to the thoughts can be repudiated or turned to blame instead, in a process linked to denial.
- Bullying: A bully may project his/her own feelings of vulnerability onto the target(s) of the bullying activity. Despite the fact that a bully’s typically denigrating activities are aimed at the bully’s targets, the true source of such negativity is ultimately almost always found in the bully’s own sense of personal insecurity and/or vulnerability. Such aggressive projections of displaced negative emotions can occur anywhere from the micro-level of interpersonal relationships, all the way up through to the macro-level of international politics, or even international armed conflict.
- Projection of general guilt: Projection of a severe conscience is another form of defense, one which may be linked to the making of false accusations, personal or political.
- Projection of hope: Also, in a more positive light, a patient may sometimes project his or her feelings of hope onto the therapist.
Jung wrote, “All projections provoke counter-projection when the object is unconscious of the quality projected upon it by the subject.” Thus, what is unconscious in the recipient will be projected back onto the projector, precipitating a form of mutual acting out.
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.
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).
Projection may help a fragile ego reduce anxiety, but at the cost of a certain dissociation, as in dissociative identity disorder. In extreme cases, an individual’s personality may end up becoming critically depleted. In such cases, therapy may be required which would include the slow rebuilding of the personality through the “taking back” of such projections.
Some 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 defense mechanism for denying the existence of the trait within the self.
Instead, Newman, Duff, and Baumeister (1997) proposed a new model of defensive projection. In this view, repressors 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.