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What is Reaction Formation in Psychology?

Shashank Nakate May 10, 2019
The information regarding reaction formation, conditions/situations in which it takes place and the treatment measures is presented further.
When a reaction formation takes place, the person in question/patient is trying to mask his feelings or emotions by exhibiting a completely opposite behavior. Reasons behind the occurrence of reaction formation could be numerous.
Deep-rooted feelings of anxiety, fear resulting from social stigma and many such things are causes of the occurrence of reaction formation. According to Sigmund Freud, a person suffering from reaction formation tries to exaggerate the compensatory/masking behavior in order to divert attention towards anything but the problem.
The problem of reaction formation is associated with many different medical conditions. However, it mostly occurs in patients with obsessional neurosis.


The concept, according to psychoanalytic theory, can be defined as a defense mechanism in which, hypertrophy is exhibited/displayed by people, in the process of masking impulses or emotions which they consider are unacceptable.
According to this hypothesis, the instincts of mind and its derivatives can be seen as paired opposite to each other. Examples of these instincts are construction-destruction, life-death, dominance-submission, action-passivity, etc.
When a particular instinct creates pressure on the ego, that instinct/impulse is sidelined by the ego and all the mental energy is concentrated on exhibiting the opposite instinct. The original instinct is, however, not discarded. It stays in the subconscious mind.


It is hard to detect whether a person is exhibiting a behavior that is a result of reaction formation. However, a few examples will help you to understand the concept in a better manner.
★ When a reaction formation occurs, a person who is angry with his friend can display a fake form of friendliness/courtesy. This behavior does the work of masking anger. It means, that though the person is angry with his friend, he cannot display the anger.
★ An alcoholic who wants to hide his addiction/addictive behavior from the society can act in a virtuous manner and even preach about abstaining from alcohol.

★ A gay person, to hide his sexual behavior could resort to hating homosexuals. The feeling of hate or fear emanates from the urge to counteract such a behavior.
★ People who love each other may tend to fight without any reason for suppressing their desires. Inability to understand a person's importance in our lives can also be a reason behind such type of behavior.
The examples mentioned here present the behavioral patterns that are more or less found in everyone we see in day-to-day life. However, in extreme cases, reaction formation doesn't occur as a result of conscious efforts on the part of the victim. The patient/victim in such cases is not even aware of any such behavioral pattern.
Such condition might arise due to the occurrence of reaction formation in a repetitive manner to an extent where the tendency 'seeps' in the subconscious mind.


The process of treating reaction formation can't start abruptly. Before psychotherapy, supportive environment should be created for the patient. The patient must feel free to admit the problems in the behavioral pattern. A positive change in the behavior should then be encouraged. Changes, appropriate from the point of patient should only be introduced.
The reaction formation is kind of a behavior in which people don't exactly express the feelings they experience. If one gets habitual to living in such a manner, it could lead to harmful consequences and thereby affecting mental health of the victim. Such problems should be nipped in a bud with the help of proper treatment.
Disclaimer: The information provided here is solely for educating the reader. It is not intended to be a substitute for the advice of a medical expert.