Report on the EASP Meeting: Understanding psychological defense after failure
27.10.2017, by Sibylle Classen in meeting report
25th-28th May, 2017 in Nape Gård, Fyresdal, Norway; Organizers: Nicolay Gausel (University of Agder), Colin Wayne Leach (University of Connecticut) and June Price Tangney (George Mason University)
In 1936, Anna Freud presented her thoughts on psychological defense and how it operated in relation to the ego. After 80 years, one should expect that much knowledge has been added to our understanding of both maladaptive and adaptive defense strategies in response to threats and failures relevant for the self. However, in this long period of time we have not yet managed to clarify the many possible forms of psychological defense or the precise mechanisms through which they operate. We therefore believed that the time had come to sit down and start working on how to better understand psychological defense. As such, this small group meeting was organized to help stimulate the theoretical, methodological, empirical, and applied understanding of psychological defense after failure. Practically, this meant that our agenda was to start to map out the domain, to begin to construct a taxonomy of defenses, to figure out how to measure defense, and finally, to sketch out directions for research going forward.
As a consequence, 19 researchers and practitioners gathered in the beautiful mountain areas of southern Norway in the late days of May to participate in a small group meeting generously sponsored by the EASP and the University of Agder. Our most generous host, Johan Benad Ugland, welcomed us in his exceptional mountain retreat Austre Nape in Fyresdal, Norway where he provided a peerless platform for fruitful intellectual work.
Not only were we hosted in a wonderful place by wonderful people who made us feel very welcome, the meeting was also special in form and content. The form was special in that each participant was “introduced” to the group through a talk about their work on the first day. This in itself was a special intellectual exchange, as participants were theoretically diverse, coming from different corners of social and personality psychology, as well as several working at the interface of social and clinical psychology. Given our diversity in content area and in preferred methods, it was striking to see common themes and conceptualizations emerge across presentations. We then spent subsequent days reflecting, integrating, discussing, and generating ideas and plans. The content itself was special because no one was truly an expert in psychological defense. Thus, we each had to link our work to this overarching theme in ways that encouraged intellectual extension. It was a sort of communal yoga for the mind. Through the days, we discussed intently themes like: Which defense strategies exist? When and why do defense strategies come into play? And, importantly, how do we empirically investigate defensive strategies to better understand their effects on the self and social relations so that we can intervene to encourage more constructive responses to failure? This happened in small working groups, in plenary sessions, and – more often than not -- just naturally during meals and evening social time. It was delightful to see the group so excited and energized that they “worked” non-stop in both formal sessions and informal gatherings, playfully, with open minds and amazing creativity.
In the end, our meeting landed on a definition of psychological defense that is not bound by a profession or sub-profession and that can be used as a tool to better understand defense: "Conscious (aware) and/or unconscious (unaware) efforts to protect the desired view of oneself or one’s group against perceived internal or external threats"
To continue our joint work, we have started to build a website www.psychologicaldefenses.org and have begun work on a joint paper that will summarize our thinking and set out a theoretical, methodological and empirical agenda that advances the study of psychological defense across topics. There is real enthusiasm to continue our collective work online and to meet together again to consolidate these efforts.