Defensive behaviors are common responses when people feel personally attacked. Psychological defensiveness includes the many ways that we let ourselves off the hook when we do wrong: misrepresenting or misremembering what occurred, not paying attention to information that is critical deflecting blame to others, minimizing any harm caused, denying responsibility, or disengaging entirely from the situation.
Research published recently in the British Journal of Social Psychology showed that defensiveness is strengthened by negative social responses but is reduced when people feel respected, valued, and secure in their group identity.
Based on research over the past several years, the researchers found that when dealing with someone who may have done something wrong the best approach to reducing defensiveness is to emphasize respect and value for the person, even if you disagree with their views or actions. They found that it’s important to provide an opportunity for the person to express their values prior to talking about the specific problem.
This research explains why defensive responses to transgressions undermine our ability to identify a problem correctly and act to solve it. This has a negative impact on decision-making within government and organizations, in relationships, and even in relation to our own individual wellbeing.
Of course, the optimal responses do not always feel natural or easy - especially when faced with someone who we think has done wrong to us. When people are caught doing something wrong in our society, our instinct is often to stigmatize, reject, or punish them, but this is likely only strengthening those defensive responses over time. And it not just in regard to that person, but to other people in similar situations.
Psychological defensiveness is a self-protective response, and in some mild forms may have some benefits such as helping us to bounce back after failures and helping us to maintain optimism and self-esteem, but defensiveness also has costs. It creates blind spots in decision-making. When individuals and groups respond defensively problems go unrecognized, victims go unacknowledged, and relationships deteriorate.
The researchers examined defensiveness in response to interpersonal transgressions and perceived ethical violations. In these contexts, defensiveness behaviors such as denying responsibility, deflecting blame, minimizing harm, and moral justifications increased when people felt stigmatized or rejected.
Humans have a primary psychological need to be valued and included by others, to feel that they are good and appropriate group members or relationship partners. When people do something wrong this primary psychological need is threatened, driving a defensive response. But addressing that psychological need to belong can reduce their defensiveness.
Alternatively, people were less defensive when they were secure in their own group identity, achieved through reinforcing their own values prior to discussing the underlying event.
British Journal of Social Psychology, “The Effects of Moral/Social Identity Threats and Affirmations on Psychological Defensiveness Following Wrongdoing,” by Michael Wenzel, Lydia Woodyatt, Ben McLean. ©2020 John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved.
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The effects of moral/social identity threats and affirmations on psychological defensiveness following wrongdoing - Wenzel - 2020 - British Journal of Social Psychology - Wiley Online Library