Specific manifestations of psyche defense mechanisms at the level of an ethnic group
Table of contents: The Kazakh-American Free University Academic Journal №4 - 2012
Author: Barabanova Yelena, East Kazakhstan State University in honor of S. Amanzholov, Kazakhstan
Psychological defense is usually regarded as the system of
regulative mechanisms, aimed at elimination of personal negative, traumatic
experiences connected with inner or external conflicts, anxiety and discomfort.
At an ethnic level, it is a psychological way of elimination of discrepancy
between an ethnic world view and reality. In the process of interethnic
contacts, people permanently meet with new information which can disturb their
ethnic world view and consequently lead to the loss of their positive identity.
Then, psychological defense mechanisms are triggered, making it possible to
avoid destructive tendencies and maintain the integrity of an ethnic system.
We can differentiate between three main levels of the personal
ethno-psychological defense structure and three respective ways of its forming
Figure 1 demonstrates an attempt to single out possible levels of
ethno-psychological defense mechanisms study.
The phenomenon of psychological defense can be detected not only at
an individual but also at a group level. Let us examine the psychological
defense mechanisms at the level of an ethnic group.
1 Levels of ethno-psychological defense mechanisms study
The problem of psychological defense manifestation in a group
context, particularly in the group dynamics, has not been elaborated yet.
However, it is extremely complicated due to lack of concise conceptual ideas of
psychological defense and group dynamics.
Just as we distinguish between several different mechanisms of
self-concept defense, so we have a variety of different types of group-concept
No matter what people do, they want to be sure in legitimacy and
fairness of their actions. Any action should be substantiated in the human
mind. Such substantiation is always provided by psychological defense
mechanisms. Attribution mechanism, which means attributing some traits and
motives to an object, is of significance in interethnic relations and in the
processes of ethnic self-defense. Primarily, ethnic groups use attribution for
forming a positive image of themselves and also for ascribing negative motives
to opponents. Forming stereotypes is based on this mechanism .
The attribution mechanism is also required when an ethnic group is
willing to form certain self-concepts, it has no sufficient objective basis
for. In such a case, self-attributions amplify the positive self-concept; in
some way, they eliminate contradictions and inconsistencies of its particular
parts, promoting formation of holistic self-comprehension with definite positive
It is obvious that in the process of self-attribution people can
commit all the errors incidental to this mechanism. Ethnic groups attribute
their failures to external circumstances but their achievements to their own
virtues. In case of hetero-attribution, the achievements are attributed to external
happy circumstances, but failures are accounted for their inherent defects,
unrealistic targets and motives. Even though such tendencies exist, they are
never absolute. The general principle consists in combination of these two
attribution types. Actually, it means coexistence and compatibility of these
two attribution strategies, finally resulting in a more flexible, realistic and
compromise attribution .
“Though attribution is a universal human phenomenon, we can assume
that it is ethnically specific. It means that a Russian, a Frenchman, a German
or a representative of any other nationality performs attributions differently;
they prefer different types of attributions; they tend to combine types of this
psychological mechanism differently and are inclined to combine attributions
with other adaptive mechanisms in a specific way.
These ethnic distinctions depend on the following factors: firstly,
on ethic cultural; secondly, on peculiarities of historical development;
thirdly, on their current status in interethnic relations” .
A particular case of attribution is a projection. Its main point
consists in projection of the group’s own but unconscious and therefore
inappropriate negative feelings, traits and peculiarities to representatives of
other ethnic groups. The essence of projection as a defense mechanism consists
in the fact that negative projections help the group avoid direct inner contact
with incompatible and upsetting mental contents.
Another group defense mechanism is the “sour grapes mechanism” which
consists in the “rational” explanation of unconscious causes of the person’s
own actions, failures and losses. Logical but basically false explanations are
used by people for self-justification. However, the motives and argumentation
are selected subconsciously; therefore, the sour grapes mechanism is not always
a willful deceit. “For the purpose of ethnic self-defense, sour grapes
mechanism is used by ethnofors and ethnic sub-groups, and even by the whole
ethnic group… At a group level, sour grapes mechanism is a part of group
ideologies, in particular – ethnic (national) ideologies, as well as of the
processes by means of which the group interests can be protected: political and
ideological discussions, propagandistic materials, the texts used for new
generations’ socialization .
The following defense mechanism is symbolization, which is
interpreted as attribution of all virtues and intentions reflecting hopes and
wants of the ethnic majority to a particular person. Thus, the combination of
the personality principle transforms into the symbol worth risking life. At
that, the personality of a public figure may lack necessary qualities, but if
necessary, people can credit him/her with required traits. Such symbolization
of people, who are far from being ideal, is essential for ethno-psychological
self-defense, positive aspects of self-concept strengthening and personality’s
identification with an ethnic group; the latter process usually takes place by
means of the personality’s identification with the national symbols.
Blaming the victim can be also considered as an ethno-defense
complex comprising several mechanisms: 1) Projection provides an opportunity
for an abuser to see problems with the victim, outside himself; 2) Attributions
allow such a person to impute a victim with additional negative qualities; 3)
Finally, the victim’s dehumanization takes place, which simplifies the
implementation of most brutal and immoral measures, methods of punishment and
control; 4) An abuser triggers sour grapes mechanism to excuse himself for the
oncoming events in advance. Thus, it becomes apparent that the future victim is
guilty and deserves punishment. In the process of these plans realization, the
aggressor gets new facts about the victim’s “dirtiness”; and he/she dares to
resist the “fair treatment”!
During the periods of escalation of interethnic tension up to the
conflict stage, psychological defense mechanisms also become strained.
Selectiveness of interethnic perception increases. Intergroup differences
strengthen and intra-group differences weaken. Attention is focused on the
information confirming present negative stereotypes; the contradicting information
is neglected. Parties to the conflict commit crimes and demonstrate cruelty,
blaming the opposite party for it; they consider their group actions a response
to aggression of an enemy. All the evil done by the representatives of their
own ethnic group is automatically repressed, and if “we didn’t do that”, the
other party has to be blamed. A person has an impression that the enemy is
always more violent and clever, and we are only victims, trying to defend
ourselves. Moreover, the mechanisms of psychological defense make these ideas
absolutely honest, and it is practically impossible to change it by means of
It is known that ethnic group cohesion and ethnocentrism serve the
purpose of ethno-defense [3, p. 116]. These processes become more intense
against the background of escalation of contradictions and conflicts. G.U.
Soldatova writes about the processes undergoing among the peoples of the Northern Caucasus in recent years: “Amid growing interethnic tension, intra-ethnic
emotional bonds are strengthening, the feeling of ethnic solidarity intensifies,
and the native ethnic group and its interests get paramount importance in the
system of values. Another characteristic feature is represented by behavioral
orientation to an ethnic group, intra-group cooperation, joint responsibility
and mutual support. Besides, the mechanisms of ethnic self-determination is
triggered: in fact, nowadays every man living in the Northern Caucasus is
forced to show his “collective”, “national” face, which means to side with
somebody” [4, p. 139].
Intensification of ethno-defense processes is promoted by development
of self-concept both at an individual and an ethnic group levels. Ethnocentrism
strengthening is closely related to self-consciousness of ethnofors.
Another psychological mechanism used unintentionally, but actively
in the “hot spots” ethnic processes is represented by regression – a
psychological return to the earlier, already by-passed levels of the ethnic
group and its culture development. In the context of conflicts, an ethnic group
uses the strategy of regressive adaptation, like any frustrated personality
does . At an ethnic level, regression can be manifested in different ways.
One of them is the following: under the conditions of interethnic conflicts, we
can see active recovery of ethnic and religion traditions, values, family
relations. For instance, people start to use the Shariat instead of civil law,
which absolutely means the backout from construction of modern civil and legal
society, from the democratic state. This is a real ethno-psychological regression,
since the Shariat had appeared in the times of tribal life, and corresponds at
its best to the level of tribal alliances. Such regression is an ethno-defense
process, which however, partially restores ethnicity lost in the Soviet period.
With that, the process of regression leads an ethnic group back to the ancient
stages of its ethnic history. Ethnic cultural and psychological regression of
some peoples may be of the following types: public punishment in accordance
with the Shariat court decision, restoration of the tradition of blood revenge,
traditions of reconciliation, traditional ways of conflicts resolution and
other elements of traditional national culture.
The example of ethnic and national repression is oblivion of most
unpleasant, shameful and frustrating pages in the history of a nation.
Subconsciously and even intentionally, the events which discredit the leaders,
ruling parties and other major political forces are relegated to oblivion. Huge
amount of knowledge and cultural values also are relegated to oblivion when a
nation abandons its traditional religion and accepts some new belief. Group repression
takes place in cases when a leader is substituted by the next one, a new dynasty
succeeds the previous one and when one political party is forced to yield power
to another party and leave the historical arena together with its ideology.
Ethnic groups and nations very often tend to repress information
related to national traitors and their deceitful deeds. Such effects are
connected with negative identity; consequently, here we reveal the cohesion
between two psychological mechanisms: repression and negative ethnic identity.
According to Nalchadzhyan, this information, impressions and related negative
experiences are preserved in the long-term memory of an ethnic group and its
members, but at a subconscious level. Ethnic subconscious is also impregnated
with unpleasant and humiliating national dignity contents. Due to the
sublimation and repression mechanisms, people usually remember fewer traitors
than their real number. The same phenomenon is observed with cases of defeat
and abasement of human dignity, which may be erased from the national memory
and not be reproduced in ethnofors’ consciousness. There also exist other ways
of liberation from frustrating, hurting influence of such recollections: they
are revaluated, distorted and partially forgotten.
Another mechanism connected with repression is sublimation,
Sublimation has several functions, defense function being one of
most important. At an individual level, sublimation represents exaltation of
mental energy, initially connected with drives of the lower level. Thus,
according to the psychoanalytical concept of sublimation, when the sexual
instinct can’t be used in a normal way, it may be deflected into acts of higher
social values and be expressed in art, science and other spheres of activities.
Sexual desire changes an object and is elevated (sublimated) . Nalchadzhyan
offered a wider sublimation concept understanding it as exaltation not only of
sexual but other instincts and transformation of their energy into creative and
social activity. Sublimating his unrealized instincts (sexual, aggressive and
egoistical in general), a person overcomes frustration, protecting his/ her
psyche from possible neurotic and psychotic disturbances.
At an ethnic level, sublimation is exaltation of the national
history and culture, its language and symbolic system, its heroes, military and
political leaders, etc. Sublimation forms certain aspects of the nation.
National goals and values are sublimated, the nation is attributed with special
historical mission; sublimating, ethnic group representatives repress negative
aspects of their national history, preserving and even strengthening positive
Sublimation of certain aspects of the national history and culture
is accompanied by repression of others, unfavorable for ethnic
self-consciousness aspects. There exist pathological forms of ethnic group
sublimation . The basic peculiarities of pathological sublimation are as follows:
1) it forms a highly distorted self-concept of an ethnic group; 2) interethnic
relations are also distorted; 3) the same is true of images of other ethnic
groups, especially hostile ones; 4) a pathologic construction is being molded –
a complex of this ethnic group extra significance (and of personal
significance), and at the same time – disparagement towards other ethnic
groups, especially towards the groups they disapprove; 5) the pathological
defense mechanism is triggered and starts functioning, initiating some
persistent abnormal features and their complexes (servility, conformism (in
their extreme manifestations); the cult of superiority and crude force, super
aggression, arrogance; 6) all these processes are accompanied by coining of
two stereotype groups: positive auto-stereotypes and negative
Accordingly, every culture has its own “defense hierarchy” and
members of every particular society resort to certain protective properties of
their psyche. Ethnic unconscious constitutes a part of the unconscious segment
of an individual psyche, common to other members of the same cultural
community. Ethnic unconscious contains the material every new generation learns
to repress in accordance with requirements of prevailing cultural patterns.
An attempt to represent the peculiarities of psychological defense
mechanisms of psyche at the level of an ethnic group allowed including into
this category such mechanisms as: attribution; sour grapes mechanism, used in
favor of the group; intensification of ethnocentric processes; ethnic and group
regression and sublimation.
1. Nalchadzhyan A.A. Ethnopsychology. 2d ed. SPb.:
St.Petersburg, 2004. – p. 381. Nalchadzhyan A.A. Ethno-Psychological
Self-Defense and Aggression. Yerevan, 2001.
2. Nalchadzhyan A.A Ethnogenesis and Assimilation.
M.: “Kogito-Tsentr”, 2004. p. 216.
3. Soldatova G.U. Psychology of Ethnic Tensions. –
M., 1998. – p. 398.
4. Freud S. Psychology of the Unconscious. – M.,
Table of contents: The Kazakh-American Free University Academic Journal №4 - 2012