Defense mechanisms can be biological or psychological. The biological defense mechanism is a physiological response that protects or preserves organisms. For example, when humans experience a danger or a threat, the “fight or flight” response kicks in. Adrenaline and other chemicals are activated and physical symptoms such as rapid heart rate and increased blood pressure occur.
An example of this might occur when an anxious student pilot is learning to place the aircraft (helicopter) in an autorotative descent, which is used in the event of engine failure or tail rotor failure. Emergency procedure training is necessary to practice as the outcome of a true emergency is directly related to the pilot’s ability to react instantly and correctly, and in taking the proper corrective action since there may be limited time to analyze the problem. The anxiety that the student pilot may feel while practicing such maneuvers may resolve itself into a “fight or flight” response.
The instructor needs to recognize the student’s apprehension about performing the autorotation and help the student gain the necessary skill level to feel comfortable with the maneuver. In this case, the instructor could take the procedure apart and demonstrate each stage of an autorotation. Allowing the student to then practice the stages at various heights should instill the confidence needed to perform the autorotation.
Sigmund Freud introduced the psychological concept of the ego defense mechanism in 1894. The ego defense mechanism is an unconscious mental process to protect oneself from anxiety, unpleasant emotions, or to provide a refuge from a situation with which the individual cannot currently cope. For example, someone who blots out the memory of being physically assaulted is using a defense mechanism. People use these defenses to prevent unacceptable ideas or impulses from entering the conscience. Defense mechanisms soften feelings of failure, alleviate feelings of guilt, help an individual cope with reality, and protect one’s self-image. [Figure 1-4]
When anxiety occurs, the mind tries to solve the problem or find an escape, but if these tactics do not work, defense mechanisms are triggered. Defense mechanisms share two common properties:
- They often appear unconsciously.
- They tend to distort, transform, or otherwise falsify reality.
Because reality is distorted, perception changes, which allows for a lessening of anxiety, with a corresponding reduction in tension. Repression and denial are two primary defense mechanisms.
Repression is the defense mechanism whereby a person places uncomfortable thoughts into inaccessible areas of the unconscious mind. Things a person is unable to cope with now are pushed away, to be dealt with at another time, or hopefully never because they faded away on their own accord. The level of repression can vary from temporarily forgetting an uncomfortable thought to amnesia, where the events that triggered the anxiety are deeply buried. Repressed memories do not disappear and may reappear in dreams or slips of the tongue (“Freudian slips”). For example, a student pilot may have a repressed fear of flying that inhibits his or her ability to learn how to fly.
Denial is a refusal to accept external reality because it is too threatening. It is the refusal to acknowledge what has happened, is happening, or will happen. It is a form of repression through which stressful thoughts are banned from memory. Related to denial is minimization. When a person minimizes something, he or she accepts what happened, but in a diluted form.
For example, the instructor finds a screwdriver on the wing of an aircraft the maintenance student was repairing and explains the hazards of foreign object damage (FOD). The student, unwilling to accept the reality that his or her inattention could have caused an aircraft accident, denies having been in a hurry the previous day. Or, the student minimizes the incident, accepting he or she left the tool but pointing out that nothing bad happened as a result of the action.
Other defense mechanisms include but are not limited to the following:
Compensation is a process of psychologically counterbalancing perceived weaknesses by emphasizing strength in other areas. Through compensation, students often attempt to disguise the presence of a weak or undesirable quality by emphasizing a more positive one. The “I’m not a fighter, I’m a lover” philosophy can be an example of compensation. Compensation involves substituting success in a realm of life other than the realm in which the person suffers a weakness.
Through projection, an individual places his or her own unacceptable impulses onto someone else. A person relegates the blame for personal shortcomings, mistakes, and transgressions to others or attributes personal motives, desires, characteristics, and impulses to others. The student pilot who fails a flight exam and says, “I failed because I had a poor examiner” believes the failure was not due to a lack of personal skill or knowledge. This student projects blame onto an “unfair” examiner.
Rationalization is a subconscious technique for justifying actions that otherwise would be unacceptable. When true rationalization takes place, individuals sincerely believe in the plausible and acceptable excuses which seem real and justifiable. For example, a student mechanic performs poorly on a test. He or she may justify the poor grade by claiming there was not enough time to learn the required information. The student does not admit to failing to join the class study group or taking the computer quiz offered by the instructor.
In reaction formation a person fakes a belief opposite to the true belief because the true belief causes anxiety. The person feels an urge to do or say something and then actually does or says something that is the opposite of what he or she really wants. For example, a student may develop a who-cares-how-other-people-feel attitude to cover up feelings of loneliness and a hunger for acceptance.
Fantasy occurs when a student engages in daydreams about how things should be rather than doing anything about how things are. The student uses his or her imagination to escape from reality into a fictitious world—a world of success or pleasure. This provides a simple and satisfying escape from problems, but if a student gets sufficient satisfaction from daydreaming, he or she may stop trying to achieve goals altogether. Perhaps the transitioning pilot is having trouble mastering a more complex aircraft, which jeopardizes his or her dream of becoming an airline pilot. It becomes easier to daydream about the career than to achieve the certification. Lost in the fantasy, the student spends more time dreaming about being a successful airline pilot than working toward the goal. When carried to extremes, the worlds of fantasy and reality can become so confused that the dreamer cannot distinguish one from the other.
This defense mechanism results in an unconscious shift of emotion, affect, or desire from the original object to a more acceptable, less threatening substitute. Displacement avoids the risk associated with feeling unpleasant emotions and puts them somewhere other than where they belong. For example, the avionics student is angry with the instructor over a grade received, but fears displaying the anger could cause the instructor to lower the grade. The student might choose to express the anger but redirects it toward another, safer person such as a spouse. Maybe the student yells at the spouse, but the student knows the spouse either forgives the anger or ignores it. The student is allowed to express anger without risking failure in a class.
Psychology textbooks or online references offer more in-depth information about defense mechanisms. While most defense mechanisms fall within the realm of normal behavior and serve a useful purpose, in some cases they may be associated with mental health problems. Defense mechanisms involve some degree of self-deception and distortion of reality. Thus, they alleviate the symptoms, not the causes, and do not solve problems. Moreover, because defense mechanisms operate on an unconscious level, they are not subject to normal conscious checks and balances. Once an individual realizes there is a conscious reliance on one of these devices, behavior ceases to be an unconscious adjustment mechanism and becomes, instead, an ineffective way of satisfying a need.
It may be difficult for an instructor to identify excessive reliance on defense mechanisms by a student, but a personal crisis or other stressful event is usually the cause. For example, a death in the family, a divorce, or even a failing grade on an important test may trigger harmful defensive reactions. Physical symptoms such as a change in personality, angry outbursts, depression, or a general lack of interest may point to a problem. Drug or alcohol abuse also may become apparent. Less obvious indications may include social withdrawal, preoccupation with certain ideas, or an inability to concentrate.
An instructor needs to be familiar with typical defense mechanisms and have some knowledge of related behavioral problems. A perceptive instructor can help by using common sense and discussing the problem with the student. The main objective should be to restore motivation and self-confidence. It should be noted that the human psyche is fragile and could be damaged by inept measures. Therefore, in severe cases involving the possibility of deep psychological problems, timely and skillful help is needed. In this event, the instructor should recommend that the student use the services of a professional counselor.