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 and functioning.

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.

Figure 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 defense.

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 [1].

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 self-esteem.

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 [1].

“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” [2].

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 [1].

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 any facts.

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 [1]. 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, exaltation (refinement).

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) [5]. 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 ones.

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 [2]. 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 hetero-stereotypes.

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., 1989.

Table of contents: The Kazakh-American Free University Academic Journal №4 - 2012

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