Monday, October 17, 2005

Reaction Formation

There is a concept in psychology that I increasingly find to be very important in understanding human behavior. It's a defense mechanism called reaction formation:
Reaction Formation occurs when a person feels an urge to do or say something and then actually does or says something that is effectively the opposite of what they really want. It also appears as a defense against a feared social punishment. If I fear that I will be criticized for something, I very visibly act in a way that shows I am personally a long way from the feared position.

A common pattern in Reaction Formation is where the person uses ‘excessive behavior’, for example using exaggerated friendliness when the person is actually feeling unfriendly.
Any number of cliche's are based on reaction formation such as "thou protesteth too much" or the common "that which you resist persists". During my greyhaired life experience I have certainly seen this concept in action. In fact, one of the places that I find reaction formation the most is in GOP politics and fundamentalist religion. But...that's another post.

Anyway, why am I bringing this up? Because of the University of Georgia did this study which was really quite interesting.

First, they found some test subjects:
Using a scale that measures traits of homophobia--fear, anger, anxiety, or aversion in response to interactions with gay men or lesbians--University of Georgia researchers compared 35 men who exhibited homophobic traits with 29 men who do not. Both groups identified themselves as exclusively heterosexual.
Now admittedly, this is not a large sample. But here's what they did with them:
Each participant viewed videotapes showing three categories of sexually explicit activities--heterosexual, male homosexual, and lesbian. (The researchers explained that they included a lesbian videotape because it has proven to be "highly sexually arousing to heterosexual men and is a better discriminator between heterosexual and homosexual men than other stimuli.") The order of the tapes was varied to avoid any effects that might be linked to the sequence in which the subjects viewed them.
An aside here. I've never really quite understood the men being turned on by the "lesbian thing". I guess I'm weird, or maybe I'm experiencing a reaction formation! Anyway, I digress:
Before and after each type of videotape, which subjects watched individually in a soundproofed room, arousal was measured using penile plethysmography. In addition, subjects provided a subjective rating of their sexual arousal using a 10-point scale following each of the three tapes.
Ewwww. A plethysmography? I hope that's not painful.

So, what happened?
The men in both of the groups had similar degrees of arousal after viewing the videos showing the heterosexual couple and two women having sex. A significant difference between the two study groups appeared, however, following the video depicting male homosexual acts.
Uh oh. I feel a zinger coming on!
According to researchers Henry Adams, Lester Wright Jr., and Bethany Lohr of the psychology department at the University of Georgia, the men in the homophobic group displayed significantly greater increase in penile circumference after the all-male videos, while the nonhomophobic subjects showed dramatically lower arousal levels. They report that 24 percent of the nonhomophobic men, but 54 percent of the subjects who scored high on the homophobia scale showed some degree of tumescence in response to the homosexual video. In addition, 66 percent of the nonhomophobic group showed no significant increases in tumescence after this video, but only 20 percent of the homophobic men failed to display any arousal.
Some parts of the body just don't lie.

So. Wow. When Dobson tells his followers that all the fathers who's sons show signs of being little homos that they should take these budding perverts to the shower with them,.....who knows what havoc he's wreaking?
Adams and his colleagues, who describe their research in the August issue of the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, also point out that the homophobic men were either unaware of or unwilling to admit the level of arousal engendered by the homosexual male video. When asked to give their subjective assessment of the degree to which they were aroused by watching each of the three videos, men in both groups gave answers that tracked fairly closely with the results of the objective physiological measurements, the authors note, with one notable exception--the homophobic men significantly underestimated their degree of arousal by the male homosexual video.
I'll bet.

Certainly the study was small and the results not completely slam-dunk. But it sure seems like reaction formation is at work in at least some homophobes. I wonder if they'll do a study on premature ejaculation?

As they always say at the end of studies, "these conclusion bear further examination".


At 5:05 AM, Blogger Lynne said...

That study doesn't surprise me at all. I have long thought that homophobes "protest too much."


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