Reconceptualizing defense as a special type of problematic interpersonal behavior pattern: A fundamental breach by an agent-in-a-situation

Michael A. Westerman

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


This article begins by identifying three key features of the traditional approach to defense (its internal focus, emphasis on self-deception, and mechanistic nature) and shows how these features reflect ideas from our philosophical tradition. It then presents an interpersonal reconceptualization of defense, which is guided by an alternative philosophical perspective based on what Merleau-Ponty (1962) referred to as 'involved subjectivity.' This reconceptualization, or theory of 'interpersonal defense,' calls for viewing defense primarily as interpersonal behavior, attending to the functional role it plays in ongoing interactions, and recognizing that defensive behavior is a special type of problematic interpersonal pattern. Interpersonal defenses often are quite effective when it comes to avoiding clear-cut versions of feared interaction outcomes, but they make it virtually impossible for clear-cut versions of wished-for outcomes to occur, promote indirect versions of feared outcomes, and lead to highly distorted forms of wished-for consequences. They are characterized by a failure in how individuals integrate their behaviors in the context of interactions in which they are engaged as participants. This is a breach precisely in what the alternative philosophical perspective takes to be the core of human behavior. Defense represents a struggle against the person's fundamental involvement in the world, and viewing it in this light helps us understand concrete features of the phenomena of interest. Implications of the theory of interpersonal defense for research and practice are discussed, including using discourse analysis to operationalize defensive behavior. The article concludes with the suggestion that the basis for defense involves a 'fundamental fault-line' in human nature which concerns a delicate balance between integrating our actions in the contexts that make up our lives and attempting to control constraints of those situations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)257-302
Number of pages46
JournalJournal of Mind and Behavior
Issue number3
StatePublished - 1998

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


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