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 Who do you think you are?


‘Oh would some power the giftie gie us; to see ourselves as others see us.’ – Robert Burns

THE well-known phrase ‘the pot calling the kettle black’ points out that we more easily detect our own shortcomings in others than we detect them in ourselves. Psychologists call this phenomenon ‘projection’.

The concept was suggested by Sigmund Freud as one of several psychological defence mechanisms, some of the others being denial, displacement, rationalisation, regression and repression. Each represents a different tactic for avoiding awareness of forbidden thoughts and wishes, and seeing ourselves as we would prefer to be rather than as we really are.

In 1936 the American psychologist Robert Richardson Sears (1908-1989) conducted a study of projection at the University of Illinois. The members of three fraternity groups were asked to rate their fraternity brothers on a seven-point scale to gauge four undesirable traits: bashfulness, disorderliness, obstinacy and stinginess. After rating the others, each student was asked to rate himself. Thus it was possible for the investigator to compare a student’s own rating of himself with other members’ ratings of him.

Those who possessed a high degree of a particular trait as estimated by their associates were divided further into two secondary groups: those whose self-ratings agreed with the group rating (they acknowledged the degree of their own trait), and those whose ratings did not agree with the rating of the group (they did not acknowledge the degree of their own trait). Sears found that members of the latter group tended to judge others more severely, i.e. more stingy, more obstinate etc, than did the members of the first group.

Interestingly, the same relationship held true at the opposite ends of the rating scales; i.e. those who were rated less stingy by their associates, but who had rated themselves as more stingy, tended to rate others as being less stingy.

Sears wrote: ‘A wish, attitude, or habit-hierarchy [otherwise known as the things an individual likes to do] which is not compatible with other attitudes or habits of an individual may be attributed by that individual to other persons rather than to himself providing he lacks insight into the fact that he himself possesses the trait in question. This process of attributing is unconscious; i.e. the subject does not give any verbal evidence that he knows his perception is false.’

(Experimental Studies of Projection: I. Attribution of Traits. Journal of Social Psychology, Volume 7, 1936.)

Whatever one may think of Sears or Freud and the concept of unconscious projection, there’s no denying that being critical of other people, while rejecting criticism of oneself, is common enough. And if unconscious projection isn’t to blame, dishonesty fits the bill. If one is dishonest about one’s own character, then it’s quite likely that one would also be dishonest about the character of others. We get to the same point, but by a different route.

Or what about good old-fashioned conceit? If one is conceited, one is hardly likely to be flattering about others. I could go on, but I invite further suggestions from TCW Defending Freedom readers.

The term ‘psychological projection’ implies that those of a psychoanalytic bent feel moved to posit an automatic, natural mechanism which prevents not-compatible wishes, attitudes or habit-hierarchies from reaching awareness. What is ‘not-compatible’ of course depends entirely upon the individual concerned, and need not be anything objectively ‘undesirable’, but more likely subjectively inconvenient.

For example, if a person is a bigot, he will assert that he is not a bigot, that it’s a divisive, sectarian world out there, and that it’s other people who are bigoted. He is merely ‘nobody’s fool’. This allows the projector to be able to continue to function in his customary way. He can reap the benefits of his ‘habit-hierarchies’ without troubling himself about being a hypocrite or a fraud. This is obviously useful, especially if his habit-hierarchies are profitable.

By dodging responsibility for his behaviour, or dressing it up as something it is not, the impact his behaviour has on other people can be safely ignored. He would contemplate being less bigoted, tolerant even, but people would simply take advantage of him. You get the picture.

Just as useful is that by ignoring ‘not compatible habit-hierarchies’ the projector feels no need to change. This is a big bonus. Change is disruptive. Real change in one’s personality, attitudes, expectations or treatment of other people is very difficult to achieve, and requires adjustments in huge areas of one’s life, such as self-esteem, career, professional associates and sometimes even sexual partner. Better to stay not-compatible. It saves a lot of bother.

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Steve Jamnik
Steve Jamnik
Steve Jamnik (pseudonym) was a student of psychology in the seventies, before ditching it to work in television.

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