"Reaction-formation" refers to an attitude or a character-trait that responds to an unconscious (repressed) wish or desire by evoking the opposite of such a desire. For example, generosity covers or conceals avariciousness and hoarding; modesty may replace megalomania; kindness or reluctance to engage in conflict can mask sadistic tendencies. Reaction-formation is thus also a symptom of a psychic conflict and a defense against instinctive reactions.
Even though it occurs in various pathologies, reaction-formation is most readily apparent in cases of obsessional neurosis. In his early writings, Freud described the mechanisms of obsessive patients, discerning in them clear signs of conflicts of ambivalence through regression from tender to sadistic impulses. In "Instincts and Their Vicissitudes" (1915c), he distinguished between reaction formation and similar concepts, such as substitute formation and compromise formation, by showing that repression is carried out differently in each case. Thus, a hostile impulse towards a loved one is subject to repression, such an impulse itself being the result of regression of the erotic drive. At first the work of repression succeeds—that is, contents of the representation vanish and the associated affect disappears. A substitute formation would entail a modification of the ego through establishment of scruples of moral conscience, distinct from the symptom per se, that involves a compromise formation.
Reaction-formation, by contrast, serves repression by intensifying the opposite. However, although conceptually and chronologically distinct, reaction formation and substitute formations are not unrelated. The former distinguishes itself by the antithetical choice of the substitution, which at least indirectly implies ambivalence. And, contrary to compromise formation, the instinct inhibited with respect to a reaction formation is not represented. In fact, it remains active and in evidence in various situations, in the subject's defensive rigidity and in specific contradictions to the reactive stance.
In Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905d), Freud gave reaction-formation a more extended meaning. He suggested it as a pathway to sublimation inasmuch as the instinct is diverted from its aim. Unlike sublimation, however, with reaction formation the instinctual aim is not merely different but is diametrically opposed to the original. On the other hand, reaction formation does not entirely succeed in this diversion, and the inhibited desire attempts constantly to resurface.
Reaction-formation can also become a permanent character trait and its significance can grow more general; it can become not just a symptom of a specific pathology, but it heralds the process of socialization. We become social beings by acquiring, as permanent character-traits, "virtues" which move counter to our sexual goals. "A sub-species of sublimation is to be found in suppression by reaction-formation," wrote Freud (1905c), "which. . .begins during a child's period of latency and continues in favourable cases throughout his whole life. What we describe as a person's 'character' is built up to a considerable extent from the material of sexual excitations and is composed of instincts that have been fixed since childhood, of constructions achieved by means of sublimation, and of other constructions, employed for effectively holding in check perverse impulses which have been recognized as being unutilizable. The multifariously perverse sexual disposition of childhood can accordingly be regarded as the source of a number of our virtues, in so far as through reaction-formation it stimulates their development" (pp. 238-239).
Reaction-formation is not restricted to character and moral virtues, but also includes the domain of thought and intellect. The counter-cathexis of the system of conscience, organized as a reaction formation, supplies the first repression (Freud, 1915d). In "Thoughts for the Times on War and Death" (1915b), Freud showed how altruism may originate from selfishness, and compassion from cruelty. "Noble" motives can have the same effect as "non-noble" motives. We cannot divine the instinctual life of a subject, however; we only can observe his or her behavior.
Humankind's capacity to reshape instinctual selfishness is otherwise known as its aptitude for culture. People have unequal abilities in this regard, and the most solid among them may prove the least well-defended. This explains how instinctual remodeling can be more or less thoroughly undone by circumstance—war being an event that puts culture most completely at risk—and how acquired civility, or the capacity to conduct oneself towards others according to ethical considerations, may entirely unravel. Reaction-formation thus exposes the fragility of morality and suggests how repressed instincts are able to return with a great intensity, as acts of barbarism and cruelty.
See also: Ambivalence; Character; Compromise formation; Defense mechanisms; Desexualization; Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense, The ; Libidinal development.
Freud, Sigmund. (1905d). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. SE, 7: 123-243.
——. (1915b). Thoughts for the times on war and death. SE, 14: 273-300.
——. (1915c). Instincts and their vissicitudes. SE 14: 109-140.
——. (1915d). Repression. SE, 14: 141-158.