Defense mechanisms may be your worst enemy…

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One year ago, I’m sitting on a leather couch watching Columbo (if you haven’t seen this TV show, it is phenomenal, and always keeps me on the edge of my seat). All of a sudden, a “breaking news report” takes over. The German is too fast for me to comprehend, but I am able to understand that there has been a plane crash.

On March 24th 2015, copilot Andreas Lubnitz deliberately crashed the Germanwings Flight 9525 airplane about 100 kilometers northwest of Nice in the French Alps. All of the passengers and crew were killed. Lubnitz locked the captain out of the cockpit, and did not respond as the captain tried to bang down the door. He did not respond to questions given from the air traffic controllers, nor did he send out a distress signal. Lubnitz’s breathing and the screams of passengers were last things to be heard on the cockpit voice recording.

Getting on an airplane is a terrifying experience; you’re putting your life in someone else’s hands. Before hiring a pilot, an airline company must screen a potential employee many times in many different circumstances to declare them fit enough to fly. They have to pass various psychological tests and medical exams. All in all, pilot error is the main reason for all airplane crashes. It doesn’t have to be an error like in the case of the Germanwings crash, where investigators later found a letter indicating that he was unfit to work by a doctor. (Germanwings had said that they had never received a sick note from him, perhaps demonstrating that he could have been “hiding an illness from his employers.” Under German law, the airline was not allowed to have access to the employee’s medical records, and just a sick note does not give information about medical conditions. Further investigation had shown that he was already previously treated for suicidal tendencies even before his training as a commercial pilot. He had even been temporarily denied a US pilot’s license.)

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Therefore, pilots have to be VERY carefully selected. Pilot errors could also include things such as acting under extreme weather conditions, fatigue, and stressful circumstances. One of my closest friends, Matt, attends the US Air Force Academy in Colorado, and he explained some interesting tests he has to take to me. One such task is a multitasking test.

The participant must sit in front of a computer screen divided into four sections. In the upper left section, you’re given two three digit numbers to add in your head within a certain time. In the lower left section, there is an animation of an airplane’s controls and you must periodically click on the right controls. In the lower right hand corner, you are given 6 or 7 letters to memorize every few minutes. They would disappear after some time, and then you were given one letter at a time and had to state whether or not that letter was one in the original set. You are given new letters every couple of minutes. In the upper right hand corner, there were a series of buttons that you have to press if you hear instructions through a headset. Instructions were read constantly but not all of them are meant for you. Individually these tasks are very simple, but to do them all at the same time is difficult. For him, he even claimed that he had completely lost his ability to do mental math. Afterwards you are given a personality test to see how easily you get stressed and frustrated.

An example, taken from:

Matt says that almost all of the Air Force’s pilot training theory is designed to be able to be recalled in stressful situations. In pilot training, they make you memorize “boldface”, which is a term to describe various emergency procedures that could potentially save your life in a crisis. They have to be memorized verbatim; down to the single apostrophe. They also hold “stand-ups” where at any time, your instructor can tell you to stand up, give you a scenario, and you have to verbally tell him the correct response without hesitation.

For example, he was flying a glider, and one of the most common stand-ups is for a rope break. This happens when a glider is being towed into the air by another airplane and the rope tying the glider to the plane breaks prematurely. In that situation you have to recite the boldface “RELEASE — PULL TWICE”. You must first call the tower on the radio to let them know. Then you have to look at your altitude; if you’re above 500' AGL, you must turn around and land on the runway. If you’re below that, you have to look for a clear spot to do an emergency landing in front of you.

This is done because if you ever are in danger in the air, it is very easy to recall the emergency procedure that is needed and react without hesitation. There are even these things called “check rides” where the procedure is practiced. For example, the instructor pilot might be sitting in the back seat and he will put the plane into a spin. At that moment, you have to verbally recite the boldface and correct the spin.

DMT and the Swedish Air Force

Therefore, pilots are highly screened under many procedures, and highly trained. An interesting article written by Jaan Suurküla explains how a Defense Mechanism Test (DMT) is used to assess the ability for a pilot to judge information correctly under stress. Used in combat pilot selection for about 40 years, this test has dramatically reduced the frequency of pilot errors due to severe stress (the most common cause of accidents). It helps to detect the defense mechanisms (DM) involved that may prevent the pilot from assessing a situation realistically in acute stressful conditions by distorting their perception. For example, a pilot may ignore a warning signal, perhaps interpreting it to be irrelevant or changed (a blinking signal perceived as being steady).

These DM occur in people that have trait anxiety, which is developed mostly throughout your childhood years (early acquired memories that are associated with anxiety or insecurity can cause an increased level of conscious/subconscious anxiety). In order to alleviate the anxiety that is present, these people subconsciously use DM to change the perception of the situation to appear less threatening. This kind of test is successful and useful to select pilots, top executives and other professionals that must realistically assess information under stressful conditions.

In Sweden alone, 80% of pilot trainees drop out year after year during flight training, with the main reason being that they are unable to act appropriately given a demanding situation. This is also seen in other air forces. It results in huge economic losses due to the high costs (for example, for fuel) of pilot training. In the Swedish Air Force, the Defense Mechanism Test (DMT) was introduced in 1970 by Ulf Kragh. It was later modified by Thomas Neuman.

The test itself detects disturbance in the perception of a threatening picture that is presented only briefly to a participant. Measured by galvanic skin responses, this objective measure finds that those with large DM react spontaneously with anxiety.

DM are usually so strong, one might not even be aware of having anxiety, and they could appear completely normal psychologically. Such pencil-paper tests like the MMPI become useless when a subject is asked about anxiety-related symptoms. At this point, it becomes even more reasonable to argue that those who believe that they are anxiety-free may be the most disturbed, as they have developed DM so strong to suppress the anxiety.

Kragh’s earlier version of the DMT suggested that the responses to these subliminally presented threatening pictures should be interpreted as projections of psychological states. Unfortunately, it is incredibly difficult to establish a specific psychological significance of a certain response. Therefore, Neuman made it quantitative, and this turned out to be incredibly valid. There is an additional study to confirm validity, stating that there is a strong connection between DMs and traumatic memories, however the results are confidential.

This testing situation appears to work because the Swedish Airforce has decreased the amount of accidents and incidents caused by pilot mistakes to nearly zero. Every year there are about 700–800 air force pilot training applicants. One out of every 30–40 pass the DMT without a dangerous propensity for using DM. What’s even more interesting is that considering these applicants were not picked from a random sample, they have already been proven eligible by many other tests. These applicants are already more healthy than the remainder of the population, therefore stating that the real proportion of those not having trait anxiety and DM is less than .25%.

The Seven Pillars of the Defense Mechanism Theory

A researcher by the name of Phebe Cramer was interested to see how DMs protect an individual not only from experiencing anxiety, but their self-esteem as well. It’s used as a coping strategy, and such mechanisms operate at an unconscious level. They can help us manage stress, disappointment and strong negative emotions. However, when used excessively, they can be considered to be linked with psychopathology. Cramer found that initially they may use repression, then perhaps denial, projection, displacement and/or rationalization. She makes it clear to the reader that one person may not use all of these defenses, and not all defenses may be used by all people. These defenses can also be grouped into clusters based on their maturity level, which is determined by theoretical and clinical considerations, or the complexity of the cognitive operations used to handle it. Based off of supporting research evidence done using coding from narrative material, clinical interviews, and self-report questionnaires, Cramer established the Seven Pillars of the Defense Mechanism Theory.

Pillar I. Defense mechanisms are cognitive operations that operate outside of awareness. Based off of their cognitive complexity, the DM consist of the following three:

· Denial: attaching negative marker to a perception, thought or feeling

· Projection: removing disturbing thoughts or feelings from the person and placing, or attributing them to someone or something else

· Identification: a change in the self (perhaps to become more like some admired person or group to enhance a sense of belonging and security)

Over time, DM complexity use shifts with age. A study with 120 children showed that at age 7, many children shift from using denial to projection and by age 10, denial has been replaced with projection. Children were given stories that displayed the use of a DM, and afterwards the child had to explain why a character in the story made a particular statement. The child was then given a score based on their understanding of DM. It proved that children who had greater understanding of a defense were less likely to use that defense.

Pillar II. There is a chronology of defense mechanism development. This entails a theoretical model for the development and predominance of the DM:

· Early years of life →Denial

· Middle childhood →Projection

· Late adolescence →Identification

There was a study done on adolescents and children in New England, where the results showed that denial was frequent in 5 year old children, then it decreased and projection took over until 8, until that decreased and identification became the predominant form during late adolescence. This goes show that age-related differences in defense use may in fact represent developmental change.

Pillar III. Defenses are part of normal, everyday functioning. The use of mature defenses will support successful functioning: the use of immature defenses will be related to less successful functioning.

Cramer made a statement here about the relation between DM use and personality functioning. She drew the line between mature defenses, which were associated with positive personality characteristics (empathy, higher self-esteem, self-confidence, outgoingness) and immature defenses associated with indications of difficulty (irresponsibility, self-centeredness, unclear “fuzzy” thinking, and anxiety). It was shown that the use of mature DM helped young adults adjust later on, whereas immature DM use was later related to problems. Although IQ and defense use are not related in children, there has been evidence to prove that such a link exists in adulthood. It has been shown that a low average range of intelligence (IQ approximately 106) and the use of less mature DMs (denial and projection) has been found to predict better personality functioning. If such a match was found between intellectual level and defense complexity level, psychological functioning is enhanced. Usually, mature defenses are associated with positive functioning and immature defenses are related to maladaptive functioning for individuals with a higher IQ (but for lower IQ individuals, the use of these defenses may have positive results).

Pillar IV. Under conditions of stress, the use of defense mechanisms will increase.

Since DM are used to protect someone from excessive anxiety, exposure to more negative situations should then result in an increase in DM use. In one study, fourth grade girls were forced under a stressful situation by using a staged rejection situation. Beforehand, girls rated classmates to determine who was liked and who wasn’t: socio-metric nominations were popular, average, rejected, and neglected. The girls were told they would meet and play with another girl, however after some kind of communication, the presumed playmate stated that she didn’t want to play with the subject. This set the stage for a rejection experience. Once the girls told stories afterwards to be coded, it was shown that the rejected and neglected girls showed a greater increase in negative affect following the rejection scenario, thus using denial and projection much more than the accepted girls. This greater upset let to greater defense use. In another study, college students were criticized based on the quality of the stories that they were told. For half the participants, they told eight stories without criticism, and for the other half, half were criticized and half were not. It was shown that the criticized students had an increase in negative affect (anger and anxiety), thus leading to an increased use of projection and identification in comparison to the participants that were not criticized.

Pillar V. Defense use under conditions of stress will reduce the conscious experience of anxiety or other negative affect.

Here, she states that the purpose of DM is to reduce negative emotionality. One study was tested on early adolescent boys who, following a lightning strike while playing soccer, had one of their playmates killed. They were then interviewed by a child clinical psychologist, and they told stories to two lightning-related pictures, then rated for degree of psychological upset. The stories were coded and it was found that boys who were using more DM at that time (age appropriate defense of projection and identification) appear less upset than the boys with less use of defenses. It can be assumed that DM use was protecting the boys from being psychologically upset. In another study, it was proven that children ages 9–18 living under the stress of sibling infection and parent death from HIV were found to use denial twice as frequently as expected. The use of DM will protect the individual from experiencing negative emotions due to increased stress, which will increase defense use thus lessening the conscious experience of anxiety and psychological upset.

Pillar VI. The use of defenses will be related to other non-volitional, non-conscious processes that are associated with emotional arousal.

Cramer stated this because there can be physiological concomitants associated with the negative affect and may continue to persist. These could include things such as increased blood pressure or changes in skin conductance. A study of young adults found that an increase in skin conductance led to an increase in denial, and an increase in diastolic blood pressure was related to an increase in identification, when the subjects were exposed to stressful conditions. Such defense use is linked to changes in internal physiological states that are known to be related to stress.

Pillar VII. Excessive use of defenses, or the use of immature, age-inappropriate defenses, is associated with psychopathology.

It has been assumed that when people use these DM too much (or it could be age-inappropriate), this may be linked to psychopathology. It is expected that children will grow through the different stages and use difference defenses, however if they are used too long after their appropriate age, she stated that there may be pathological results. Cramer comes up with some interesting questions of causality:

· Does the use of certain defenses result in the development of pathology, or does the presence of psychopathology result in the overuse of certain defenses?

· Alternatively, are defenses and psychopathology intrinsically linked, such that the defense is the pathology, and vice versa?

It is known that when defenses are used moderately, they can help humans adapt. However, for example in the case of extreme denial, they may not see the danger in a threatening situation, and this hurts more than it helps. In the case of projection, being alert and watchful in a dangerous situation is adaptive, but thinking that danger is lurking at every corner during extreme projection is good evidence of psychopathology. Here, the presence of a paranoid disorder was related to the use of projection. It has been shown that the use of immature defenses is clearly related to psychopathology and the presence of DSM-IV Cluster B Personality disorders (e.g., Borderline, Antisocial, Narcissistic and Histrionic disorders).

All in all, there needs to be more research on this topic. It would be a good idea to follow the same participants from childhood to adulthood to learn the life-span development and use of defenses. It would also be interesting to examine the relationship between defense awareness and defense use. For children, more awareness leads to less use of that defense. Yet what happens in adults? There is hope that with awareness, these DM may hopefully be stopped or modified.

To use the DMT or not, that is the question…

There was also an interesting article written by Ekehammar, about the Defense Mechanism Test (DMT) and how although it has been used for nearly 50 years, there are still many conflicting views on whether it is reliable or not, and what it actually measures. Through analyzing inter-coder reliability, constructing another photographic picture that was similar to the original and examining construct validity, they found that the DMT can be coded with high reliability, there is some kind of generalizability in the number of perceptual distortions people display from one picture to another, and that there isn’t much evidence to support the fact that the DMT measures DM.

The test itself is very interesting, it’s based on anxiety-provoking pictures that an individual is exposed to for a very short amount of time (5 ms to 2,000 ms). There is a teenager in the center of the same sex as the person that is tested (the “hero”) and in the periphery an older and more threatening person. The rationale here was that the DM help the participant cope with the stressful situation and distort it to make an accurate perception of the dangerous perception difficult.

There are many conflicting opinions about its reliability and validity. On one hand, Harsveld (1991) calls it “an extremely unreliable measuring instrument”, yet on the other Kline (1987) states that it “is a reliable test in a wide variety of samples.” However, the good predictive validity figures that were obtained in Scandinavian military selection settings, cannot prove that the DMT measures what it is supposed to measure.

The argument for construct validation was incredibly poor. There were no significant relations between the total defense and corresponding scores of the DMT and those of the other instruments. There were no substantial correlations between the overall scores and the subscales of the different defense questionnaires and the DMT. There was also no relation between people’s responses to the DMT and their scores on various self-report defense-mechanism questionnaires.

Although it can be seen from this that the DMT lacks construct validity, it’s more complicated than that. Research in areas such as motive, attitude and prejudice have shown that there is a difference between explicit (slow, intentional, conscious) and implicit (fast, automatic, unconscious) aspects of the same phenomenon. These implicit and explicit measures may not necessarily be associated. Perhaps, the processes involved in DMT perception are not fully implicit as all the exposures are not subliminal because there is an increasing exposure up to 2,000 ms. In this case, it would be possible to make the process explicit (slow, intentional, conscious) rather than implicit. Therefore the DMT cannot be labeled as one or the other.

Construct validation based on state and trait anxiety, however, showed a significant relationship between the DMT and total state anxiety, but not with total trait anxiety. It showed that people’s state-anxiety levels affect their DMT perceptions; the higher their state anxiety the larger is the number of perceptual distortions in their responses. This seems believable because state anxiety is commonly known to interfere with information-processing quality.

To conclude, DMs are certainly an interesting topic. They affect every single one of us, and we use them constantly throughout our lives, regardless of age. They become an important area of study: such research is valuable to select top notch pilots, executives and professionals that have to react under stressful circumstances. They also help us watch the development of children, as DM use changes over time. Even though the DMT as a test is very controversial and lacks construct validity, it still provides some sort of conclusive evidence and could always be modified in the future.

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