Psychological projection

Psychological projection is a defence mechanism in which the human ego defends itself against unconscious impulses or qualities (both positive and negative) by denying their existence in themselves while attributing them to others.[1] For example, a person who is habitually rude may constantly accuse other people of being rude. It incorporates blame shifting and can manifest as shame dumping.[2]

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Historical precursors

A prominent precursor in the formulation of the projection principle was Giambattista Vico.[3][4] In 1841, Ludwig Feuerbach was the first enlightenment thinker to employ this concept as the basis for a systematic critique of religion.[5][6][7] The Babylonian Talmud (500 AD) notes the human tendency toward projection and warns against it: "Do not taunt your neighbour with the blemish you yourself have."[8] In the New Testament, Jesus also warned against projection: "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye." [9]

Psychoanalytic developments

Projection (German: Projektion) was conceptualised by Sigmund Freud in his letters to Wilhelm Fliess,[10] and further refined by Karl Abraham and Anna Freud. Freud considered that, in projection, thoughts, motivations, desires, and feelings that cannot be accepted as one's own are dealt with by being placed in the outside world and attributed to someone else.[11] What the ego repudiates is split off and placed in another.[12]

Freud would later come to believe that projection did not take place arbitrarily, but rather seized on and exaggerated an element that already existed on a small scale in the other person.[13] (The related defence of projective identification differs from projection in that there the other person is expected to become identified with the impulse or desire projected outside,[14] so that the self maintains a connection with what is projected, in contrast to the total repudiation of projection proper.)[15]

Melanie Klein saw the projection of good parts of the self as leading potentially to over-idealisation of the object.[16] Equally, it may be one's conscience that is projected, in an attempt to escape its control: a more benign version of this allows one to come to terms with outside authority.[17]

Theoretical examples

Projection tends to come to the fore in normal people at times of personal or political crisis[18] but is more commonly found in personalities functioning at a primitive level as in narcissistic personality disorder or borderline personality disorder.[19]

Carl Jung considered that the unacceptable parts of the personality represented by the Shadow archetype were particularly likely to give rise to projection, both small-scale and on a national/international basis.[20] Marie-Louise Von Franz extended her view of projection, stating that "wherever known reality stops, where we touch the unknown, there we project an archetypal image".[21]

Psychological projection is one of the medical explanations of bewitchment used to explain the behavior of the afflicted children at Salem in 1692. The historian John Demos asserts that the symptoms of bewitchment experienced by the afflicted girls were due to the girls undergoing psychological projection of repressed aggression.[22]

Practical examples

  • Victim blaming: The victim of someone else's actions or bad luck may be offered criticism, the theory being that the victim may be at fault for having attracted the other person's hostility.[23]
  • Projection of marital guilt: Thoughts of infidelity to a partner may be unconsciously projected in self-defence on to the partner in question, so that the guilt attached to the thoughts can be repudiated or turned to blame instead, in a process linked to denial.[24]
  • Bullying: A bully may project his/her own feelings of vulnerability onto the target(s) of the bullying activity. Despite the fact that a bully's typically denigrating activities are aimed at the bully's targets, the true source of such negativity is ultimately almost always found in the bully's own sense of personal insecurity or vulnerability.[25] Such aggressive projections of displaced negative emotions can occur anywhere from the micro-level of interpersonal relationships, all the way up through to the macro-level of international politics, or even international armed conflict.[20]
  • Projection of general guilt: Projection of a severe conscience[26] is another form of defense, one which may be linked to the making of false accusations, personal or political.[20]
  • Projection of hope: Also, in a more positive light, a patient may sometimes project his or her feelings of hope onto the therapist.[27]


Jung wrote, "All projections provoke counter-projection when the object is unconscious of the quality projected upon it by the subject."[28] Thus, what is unconscious in the recipient will be projected back onto the projector, precipitating a form of mutual acting out.[29]

In a rather different usage, Harry Stack Sullivan saw counter-projection in the therapeutic context as a way of warding off the compulsive re-enactment of a psychological trauma, by emphasizing the difference between the current situation and the projected obsession with the perceived perpetrator of the original trauma.[30]

Clinical approaches

Drawing on Gordon Allport's idea of the expression of self onto activities and objects, projective techniques have been devised to aid personality assessment, including the Rorschach ink-blots and the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT).[31]

Projection may help a fragile ego reduce anxiety, but at the cost of a certain dissociation, as in dissociative identity disorder.[32] In extreme cases, an individual's personality may end up becoming critically depleted.[33] In such cases, therapy may be required which would include the slow rebuilding of the personality through the "taking back" of such projections.[34]

The method of managed projection is a type of projective techniques. The basic principle of the method is that a subject is presented with his own verbal portrait named by the name of another person, as well as with a portrait of his fictional opposition (V. V. Stolin, 1981).

The technique is suitable for application in psychological counseling and might provide valuable information about the form and nature of his or her self-esteem Bodalev, A (2000). "General psychodiagnostics".


Some studies were critical of Freud's theory. Research supports the existence of a false-consensus effect whereby humans have a broad tendency to believe that others are similar to themselves, and thus "project" their personal traits onto others. This applies to good traits as well as bad traits and is not a defense mechanism for denying the existence of the trait within the self.[35]

Instead, Newman, Duff, and Baumeister (1997) proposed a new model of defensive projection. In this view, repressors try to suppress thoughts of their undesirable traits, and these efforts make those trait categories highly accessible—so that they are then used all the more often when forming impressions of others. The projection is then only a by-product of the real defensive mechanism.[36]

See also


  1. Sigmund Freud, Case Histories II (PFL 9) p. 132
  2. Hotchkiss, Sandy; foreword by Masterson, James F. Why Is It Always About You?: The Seven Deadly Sins of Narcissism (Free Press, 2003)
  3. Harvey, Van A. (1997). Feuerbach and the interpretation of religion. Cambridge University Press. p. 4. ISBN 0521470498.
  4. Cotrupi, Caterina Nella (2000). Northrop Frye and the poetics of process. University of Toronto Press, Scholarly Publishing Division. pp. 21. ISBN 978-0802081414.
  5. Harvey, Van A. (1997). Feuerbach and the interpretation of religion. University of cambridge. p. 4. ISBN 978-0521586306.
  6. Mackey, James patrick (2000). The Critique of Theological Reason. Cambridge University press. pp. 41–42. ISBN 978-0521169233.
  7. Nelson, John K. (1990). "A Field Statement on the Anthropology of Religion". Ejournalofpoliticalscience.
  8. Babylonian Talmud. pp. Baba Metsiya 59b, Kiddushin 70a. And he who [continually] declares [others] unfit is [himself] unfit and never speaks in praise [of people]. And Samuel said: All who defame others, with their own blemish they stigmatize [these others].
  9. Matthew 7:3-5 (NIV)
  10. Jean-Michel Quinodoz, Reading Freud (London 2005) p. 24
  11. Case Studies II p. 210.
  12. Otto Fenichel, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis (London 1946) p. 146.
  13. Sigmund Freud, On Psychopathology (PFL 10) pp. 200–01.
  14. Patrick Casement, Further Learning from the Patient (1997) p. 177.
  15. Otto F. Kernberg, Borderline Conditions and Pathological Narcissism (London 1990) p. 56.
  16. Hanna Segal, Klein (1979) p. 118.
  17. R. Wollheim, On the Emotions (1999) pp. 217–18.
  18. Erik Erikson, Childhood and Society (1973) p. 241.
  19. Glen O. Gabbard, Long-Term Psychodynamic Psychotherapy (London 2010) p. 33.
  20. Carl G. Jung ed., Man and his Symbols (London 1978) pp. 181–82.
  21. Franz, Marie-Louise von (September 1972). Patterns of Creativity Mirrored in Creation Myths (Seminar series). Spring Publications. ISBN 978-0-88214-106-0. found in: Gray, Richard M. (1996). Archetypal explorations: an integrative approach to human behavior. Routledge. p. 201. ISBN 978-0-415-12117-0.
  22. Demos, John (1970). "Underlying Themes in the Witchcraft of Seventeenth-Century New England". American Historical Review. 75 (5): 1311–26 [p. 1322]. JSTOR 1844480.
  23. The Pursuit of Health, June Bingham & Norman Tamarkin, M.D., Walker Press.
  24. Sigmund Freud, On Psychopathology (Middlesex 1987) p. 198.
  25. Paul Gilbert, Overcoming Depression (1999) pp. 185–86.
  26. Patrick Casement, Further Learning from the Patient (1990) p. 142.
  27. Patrick Casement, Further Learning from the Patient (1990) p. 122.
  28. General Aspects of Dream Psychology, CW 8, par. 519.
  29. Ann Casement, Carl Gustav Jung (2001) p. 87.
  30. F. S. Anderson ed., Bodies in Treatment (2007) p. 160.
  31. Semeonoff, B. (1987). "Projective Techniques". In Gregory, Richard (ed.). The Oxford Companion to the Mind. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 646. ISBN 0-19-866124-X.
  32. Trauma and Projection (subscription required)
  33. R. Appignanesi ed., Introducing Melanie Klein (Cambridge 2006) pp. 115, 126.
  34. Mario Jacoby, The Analytic Encounter (1984) pp. 10, 108.
  35. Baumeister, Roy F.; Dale, Karen; Sommer, Kristin L. (1998). "Freudian Defense Mechanisms and Empirical Findings in Modern Social Psychology: Reaction Formation, Projection, Displacement, Undoing, Isolation, Sublimation, and Denial". Journal of Personality. 66 (6): 1090–92. doi:10.1111/1467-6494.00043.
  36. Newman, Leonard S.; Duff, Kimberley J.; Baumeister, Roy F. (1997). "A new look at defensive projection: Thought suppression, accessibility, and biased person perception". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 72 (5): 980–1001. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.72.5.980. PMID 9150580.
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