Bleg: Repression–Freudian and Otherwise

I’m in the middle of a short paper (for class!) on Michael Billig’s Freudian Repression: Conversation Creating the Unconscious. Verdict on the book: essentially negative. But that’s a topic for another time. I’ve come neither to praise nor blame, but to bleg.

I’m looking for “off the cuff” answers to the four (or five) questions below the fold. The point is to get a (very unscientific) sense of how “people” think of psychological repression. Feel free to answer whether you’ve read Freud or not (Sigmund or Anna or both); whether you’re in psychology or psychiatry or not; and whether the conception of repression you have in mind is Freudian or not. If you have read Freud, and/or are professionally in psychology or psychiatry, please indicate that. And feel free to answer any or all (or I guess, none) of the questions.

Here are the questions:

  1. What is repression? When we say, “John is repressed,” what exactly are we saying about him?
  2. Is repression inherently sexual?
  3. Is repression always a bad thing, or can it ever be a good thing?
  4. Would you (off the cuff) regard your conception of “repression” as having been influenced by Freud in some “significant” way? (I’ll leave you to define “significant”).

A question specifically intended for professionals in psychiatry or psychology (any branch):

5. Do you regard “repression” as a scientifically credible concept, e.g., as having gotten experimental support?

No, I haven’t gotten IRB approval for this bleg, and have no intention of asking for it.

P.S.: If you’ve never written a comment for the blog before, your first comment won’t show up until I’ve approved it, which may be hours after you’ve submitted it.

25 thoughts on “Bleg: Repression–Freudian and Otherwise

  1. I got two sets of responses offline by a pair of respondents who asked, in the name of privacy, to go by the pseudonyms “Diane Keaton” and “Julia Roberts.”

    Q1) Diane: To be repressed is to be out of touch with one’s emotions.
    Julia: To be repressed is not to want to have sex with someone under normal circumstances. (Julia’s example of a “normal circumstance”: “not wanting to have sex with me.”)

    Q2) Diane wavered. Julia was adamant that repression is inherently sexual.

    Q3) Both agreed that repression is sometimes a good/necessary thing.

    Q4) Diane professed to “hate” Freud, then concluded that this meant that she must have been influenced by him. Julia claimed not to have been influenced by Freud at all in her use of the concept.

    Science at work, folks. “The voice of reason is soft, but very persistent.”

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  2. Alright, I’ll bite.

    1. Repression is a psychic condition in which some of a person’s desires or impulses have been restricted to the sub-conscious level. The person has these desires or impulses in the sense that they influence the person’s behavior and shape the way he or she consciously experiences attraction and repulsion, but the person is not aware of the desires as such in the way that one is standardly aware of a desire, say, to drink some water, to punch an infuriating acquitance, to watch a particularly exciting movie, to learn Sanskrit, etc. By contrast, if I have, say, a repressed desire for sexual contact with members of the same sex or with members of the opposite sex whom I take to be off limits, or repressed impulses toward disdain and hostility toward members of certain races, or a repressed desire to be the most esteemed member of all my social groups, I will sincerely deny that I have these desires or impulses, but they will nonetheless affect my behavior and my experience of certain things as attractive or repulsive in ways that I will either fail to notice or rationalize in other ways. It is probably mistaken to say that someone such as John is repressed without qualification; rather, someone like John is repressed with respect to some range of desires or impulses. Perhaps it is strictly better to speak of desires or impulses rather than people as repressed.

    2. No. Freud thought it was, but only because he thought that all desire is fundamentally sexual. I do not know if this is because he had a crassly reductive view of desire or a startlingly broad view of sexuality.

    3. Repression, if that’s the right way to think of these things, is not always bad. If a person has, say, sexual attraction toward young adolescent girls or a desire to be the most esteemed member of all of his social groups, it is probably better that these desires be repressed rather than expressed. Of course, the best option would be to eliminate them, but if that isn’t possible, repression isn’t such a bad thing. Perhaps there is a danger that repressed desires can come unleashed, but even if so, it is probably better that they become unleashed only occasionally than that they be embraced. If it is possible to un-repress (or whatever the word would be) some desires but not express them, then perhaps that would be a better option than repression, but that would seem to depend on just how disturbing it would be for a person to acknowledge those desires. Of course not all repressed desires are desires that a person shouldn’t have; in those cases, repression does no good, though it may not necessarily do any harm.

    4. I take it that Freud either invented or popularized the notion of repression. If so, that seems significant. In popular parlance, however, I doubt that very much specifically Freudian thought comes along with the idea. If we think that Freud deserves credit for discovering (or perhaps rediscovering) the subconscious, then his influence would be significant even if the popular idea doesn’t bring many others of his ideas with it, since it clearly presupposes the notion of a subconscious desire.

    I haven’t read much Freud, but of course I’ve read lots of stuff about Freudian psychoanalysis and a fair amount of work influenced by him. So I can claim neither familiarity nor ignorance.

    I’m curious to see whether anyone will have interesting things to say about question 5.

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    • I have a lot to say about all of that, but let me wait until after we get more responses before I do (assuming we get more).

      But I have a follow-up. Your answer to (1) implies that repression involves at least a failure of self-knowledge, and very likely a form of self-deception. On your view, if I’m repressed (or even repressed vis-a-vis a desire or set of them),

      I will sincerely deny that I have these desires or impulses, but they will nonetheless affect my behavior and my experience of certain things as attractive or repulsive in ways that I will either fail to notice or rationalize in other ways

      There seems a significant doxastic-affective failure there. But if so, why doesn’t that imply as an answer to question (3) that repression is always bad, at least qua failure of self-knowledge and/or self-deception? If self-deception is essential to repression, then if self-deception is always bad, so is repression. Or so it seems. Or would you want to say that while bad qua self-deceptive, it has other good effects that offset the badness of the self-deception involved?

      Incidentally, I think “John is repressed” is just elliptical for “John is the victim of repression vis-a-vis a normatively significant set of desires.” That, I take it, is what “Diane Keaton” is getting at in describing “John’s being repressed” as “John’s being out of touch with his emotions.” Ms Keaton’s formulation is just a colloquial, abbreviated way of saying,

      Consider John. Now consider the most normatively salient parts of John’s emotional life. If John is emotionally repressed, it will be the case that if you single out a normatively salient emotion–grief, anger, guilt–John finds his own emotional experiences fundamentally opaque. He doesn’t know what he’s feeling, he doesn’t know why, and he tends to deceive himself about both things, confabulating emotional responses that aren’t there, and missing the ones that really are.

      “Diane’s” making emotions rather than desires the object of repression brings out the psychological failure very clearly: John is a self-made mystery to himself. The more he continues in this way, the more of a mystery he will become, and the less able to function as an efficacious, wholehearted agent. That way of putting things also clarifies the rationale for predicating repression of a person. Yes, repression takes place at the level of individual desires or emotions, but repression can also become a generalized syndrome involving character-relevant sets of desires and/or emotions, in which case the person himself is repressed.

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      • Yes, I suppose what I should have said is that given some specific sort of desire or impulse, it will sometimes be better for that desire or impulse to be repressed rather than not. The conditions under which it would be better are (a) that the desire is one that a person should not have; (b) that the desire is not one that the person can (easily) eliminate; and (c) that awareness of the desire would be disturbing to the person. In any case, repression would never be ideal, but in some circumstances it might be the least bad option. That’s a bit different than simply saying that it isn’t always bad.

        I’m not fully convinced that there are repressed desires. I’m fairly convinced that there are subconscious (or perhaps merely unconscious) desires and that even desires of which we are conscious are often not transparent to us. My hesitation about affirming repressed desires in particular stems from uncertainty about just what more is supposed to be involved in them than their being sub/unconscious or not entirely transparent.

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        • A couple of comments on your first paragraph:

          (1) Regarding (a) & (b): Take a person S who has a desire he shouldn’t have. Suppose that S can eliminate the desire (full stop). Easily or not, doesn’t S have the obligation (or: shouldn’t he) simply work to eliminate it? Now suppose that elimination is more* efficacious at suppressing expression of the desire than repression. Then elimination will trump repression. The question then becomes an empirical one: which thing is more/less efficacious at suppressing expression of the desire?

          If repression is as you characterize it, repression will be less effective because it operates “behind the back” of the agent’s agency: the agent isn’t in control of the desire. And of course, if it’s a desire he shouldn’t have, repression is going to be a mere half-measure. Repression doesn’t ensure that S doesn’t have the desire; it just mutes its expression (somewhat, in an unpredictable way).

          So I don’t see what work the “easily” proviso in (b) does. Either you can eliminate the desire, or you can’t. If you shouldn’t have it, and you can eliminate it, shouldn’t you simply (work to) eliminate it, come what may? Bottom line: prima facie, elimination seems to trump repression. Repression seems suboptimal, at least. (Here is where the very useful services of a competent and licensed therapist will enter the picture. Check your insurance coverage!)

          *Corrected: I had originally written “less.” Freudian slip.

          (2) Regarding (a) & (c): If S has a desire he shouldn’t have, why is it relevant that awareness of the desire would be disturbing to him? A virtue of courage or integrity would seem to require facing disturbing realities about oneself, however unpalatable (assuming they are real). Repression seems in this case to facilitate self-deception, or at least to abet willful ignorance. And if elimination trumps repression, elimination becomes the goal. If so, I’d think that S has to know what it is that he’s trying to eliminate if he’s going to succeed at doing so.

          So if repression is a legitimate concept, contra Freud, it seems to refer to a bad thing. Freud held the (to me) paradoxical view that repression was necessary despite the fact that repressions served to distort reality. His view presupposes that distortion of reality is a necessary condition of mental health. Neera Badhwar has something on this. (Badhwar’s article is on the supposed need for illusory optimism rather than repression, but it targets the same idea–that self-deception is a necessary condition of mental health.)

          On your second paragraph:

          This is not a standard view in psychology (much less in Freud), but the following strikes me as a clear, paradigmatic case of repression:

          An agent S has a second-order Frankfurtian desire d2 for a first-order d1. The problem is, S doesn’t in fact have any such desire d1. S has falsely come to believe that he has d1, and deceives himself in a counterfactually stable way into believing that he desires d1. As he deceives himself into believing that he desires d1 over t1…tn, d2 intensifies in strength over t1…tn.

          My conclusion: S is repressed with respect to (d1, d2). Depending on the values for d, we could validly infer that S is repressed, tout court.

          In other words, S has come to want to want something he doesn’t actually want. Given the intensity of the second-order want, instead of attending to the actual structure of his first-order wants, he confabulates a first-order want to fit the second-order want. The second-order want and the confabulation then start to act in tandem and take on a life of their own. That strikes me as a clear case of repression, though there may be others. Subconscious desire plays no essential role in my example. And yet the agent is opaque to himself and desires are essentially involved in producing the opacity. I think that pattern captures repression at least as well as appeal to subconscious desire. (Unfortunately, Freud refers to unconscious drives. And I do think Freud’s “moral psychology” is reductively sexual, and problematic in many other respects besides.)

          On my view, repression is a species of self-deception. If self-deception is always bad, so is repression. But my view is revisionary. It’s not the going view in psychology. I think it captures what we mean in common parlance, however. But I’ve only given an example, not an analysis.

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          • In reverse order:

            I have no objections to your description of the self-deceived person who mistakenly believes that he wants what he wants to want. I’m just not sure we should understand it as a case of repression. Minimally, it doesn’t strike me as a clear case, and I’m curious why it seems that way to you.

            We can, of course, just stipulate that what we mean by ‘repression’ is such-and-such, so that this case will clearly fall under the concept. But my thinking about repression — which is complicated by the fact that I’m not entirely convinced that there is any such thing, or, perhaps better put, that the phenomena that people are talking about when they use the language of ‘repression’ is best understood in terms of repression — is constrained by (a) my second- and third-hand understanding of how that concept is supposed to operate in Freudian psychoanalysis, and (b) the literal meaning of the word. The literal meaning of the word suggests that we have something that has been forced back; my understanding of the Freudian notion is that it essentially involves either the subconscious or at least considerable opacity. Taken together, these considerations give us the idea that a repressed desire / impulse / emotion / whatever is something that has been forced back below the level of conscious awareness, or at least low enough that the subject doesn’t have a clear view of what it is.

            Now maybe that’s just wrong, either as an interpretation of Freudian psychoanalysis or as a way of understanding the concept of repression. I certainly have no horses in the race for the best conception of repression. But supposing that it’s at least roughly right as an account of how psychoanalysis uses the concept, then I’m not sure why we should think that the case you describe is a case of repression. Sure, there are some similarities, but that’s not sufficient. Even if we agree that repression is a species of self-deception, why should we think that your example is an example of repression and not just of another kind of self-deception? Your view is revisionary, yes, but what can we say in favor of the revision?

            On the first point, I don’t have any major objections to what you say, I just think you’re operating on a level of ideal theory that strikes me as unrealistic and unreasonable to insist on in everyday practice. Yes, repression would be suboptimal in any case. But if the extent of psychic discord caused by coming to acknowledge some suppressed desire were very high and the difficulty of eliminating it also very high, then unless the desire is likely to be expressed in damaging ways, it seems rather excessively moralistic to demand that a person struggle through the process of acknowledging and eliminating a repressed desire simply because self-knowledge is better than self-deception. I’m assuming the falsity of a view that I’ve seen at least suggested in much Freud-friendly literature, viz. that the repressed desire will inevitably lead the person into tremendously painful conflicts and/or will, if left repressed, erupt into some sort of soul-destroying overflow (psychoanalytic readings of Euripides’ Bacchae come to mind). If Bob has repressed sexual attraction to adolescents or a repressed desire to dominate his partners in conversation, but the repression is successful at preventing him from acting on those desires and from experiencing any severe psychic turmoil, then I don’t see why the heroic virtues of self-imposed suffering in the name of self-knowledge should take precedence over his efforts to live a productive life training dogs and caring for his family and friends. Even on the assumption that self-knowledge is unqualifiedly superior to self-deception, sometimes the best is the enemy of the good.

            If there are any serious Freudians reading these posts, I’m pretty sure they’re suspecting me of being seriously repressed right now.

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          • As an entree into a response, let me quote two Freudian characterizations of repression, one from Freud, one from Jonathan Lear. Then I’ll add my own twist, and get to your comment proper.

            In “Repression,” Freud writes:

            the essence of repression lies simply in turning something away, and keeping it at a distance, from the conscious

            He italicizes this phrase. The discussion comes in the context of what David Potts has (correctly) been calling the “hydraulic” conception of desire in Freud. Like DP, I think the hydraulic conception is problematic–a mistake. Unlike DP, I not only think repression can characterized without reference to it, I think Freud’s conception of repression can be decoupled from it without doing violence to what he calls “the essence of repression.”

            Here is Jonathan Lear’s “definition” of “repression” in the glossary of the second edition of his (brilliant, must-read) book, Freud (2015):

            repression A mental activity (or set of mental activities) by which an idea, wish, thought or fantasy is actively kept out of conscious awareness. Repression expresses an elemental motivation of the mind to keep certain ideas unconscious….

            (p. 220)

            I put “definition” in scare quotes, because Lear regards this glossary entry not as a formal definition but as what he calls a “minimal orientation” to the concept. Lear’s entry agrees with Ray Raad that the object of repression is an “idea” or “thought,” but includes “wish” (which Ray didn’t mention). Boag (whom I cited elsewhere, responding to DP) insists that as a purely textual matter, Freud takes wishes to be the object of repression. I’m inclined to agree with Boag, but it doesn’t matter. Lear’s “definition” is Freudian; I think he makes the case for its Freudian character over the course of the book. He explicitly addresses the “hydraulic conception” objection, and offers what strikes me as exactly the right response to it:

            It is fashionable to criticize Freud for having an old-fashioned model of the mind, one based on nineteenth-century models of hydraulics. But what he is pointing out here [in the case study of Ms von R] is an important truth: that there is an intensity to life that can be experienced self-consciously, that is transferable, and can show up in myriad ways. A physical pain can take the place of a mental pain; a sensitive area in the thigh can take the place of sensitivities elsewhere (p. 70).

            Lear is not talking about repression there; he’s talking about how to read Freud. If we want to deconstruct Freud, we can find myriad ways of doing it. Lots of what he said was not just false but borderline fraudulent (or maybe flat-out fraudulent). But even when that’s said and done, the question remains: is there anything left of Freud once the destructive task is over? Can Freud be read at a level of abstraction that allows us to dispense with what’s false and retain the essence? I think Lear makes the case for a “yes.” At any rate, I agree with the case that he makes. I’d recommend the book to anyone trying to make philosophical sense of Freud.

            Lear’s definition builds on Freud’s characterization of the “essence.” Here is how I would put it. Repression presupposes a background. A person engaged in it has to have a conception of the morally forbidden and morally required that is motivationally powerful but not well understood by the person himself. He then uses this conception to “screen off” mental contents in a systematic and selective way.

            It’s easier to understand this in the case of the forbidden: if I think that X is forbidden, I will push it away when it makes an appearance in consciousness without being able to articulate the reasons why beyond “It is forbidden.” The referent of “it” will be completely opaque to me. What is forbidden? Thinking the thought? Entertaining the thought? Expressing a desire involving the thought? Acknowledging that the thought is there? Acknowledging that it’s mine?

            What repression requires is fast-forwarding over all of these considerations, and pushing any X-like thing out of awareness, so as to keep X away from awareness on the premise that “X is forbidden,” where the value for X is deliberately kept somewhat unclear. I don’t mean that repression is articulated (just the opposite) but if the repressor were to articulate what he was doing, the thought would be: “If I get the merest glimpse of an X-like mental item coming to awareness, I ask no questions: I kill it.” Put another way: “X must under no circumstances make an appearance of any kind within my consciousness. I won’t let it. Come what may.”

            Understood in this way, “repression” could just as easily have been called “pushing,” “turning,” or “distancing.” (I prefer “pushing” because it treats the offending thought as an alien intruder that one is ushering off the stage or out of one’s hosue.) The word “repression” does conjure up the unfortunate hydraulic images. But characterizations of mental activities are ubiquitously metaphorical, so my response is: so what? As long as we’re clear about what we mean, the hydraulic imagery conjured up by “repression” is not that big a deal. The relevant point is that the mental activity that I’m describing as repression clearly merits that name, has a clear textual basis in Sigmund Freud’s writings (and probably in Anna Freud’s), really happens, is psychologically significant when it happens, and is not intrinsically tied to the “repressed memory” debate.

            Repression and self-deception are obviously closely related concepts, but I don’t think that all self-deception requires the same act of pushing away-forbidden-mental-items-qua-forbidden that I’ve ascribed to repression.

            Now, to get to my Frankfurtian example. Again, it’s probably easier to understand repression in the context of the agent’s conception of the forbidden. But in real life, conceptions of the forbidden and the required work in tandem. If something is forbidden, avoiding it will tend to be required. If something is required, its complement will be forbidden. (Yes, there are other concepts at work, like the permissible and the neutral and so on, but my point is, repression arises in the part of the agent’s psyche that concerns the-forbidden-and-the-required. I’ve hyphenated it to underscore the fact that the two things co-operate. If you could find an agent who really believed that “anything goes,” and/or “nothing is required,” the agent would be incapable of repression.) In my example, the agent is convinced that she must have a desire that she doesn’t have. Having the desire is required. This is a way of saying that lacking the desire is forbidden to her. So she confabulates it. But confabulation requires turning away–pushing away–rendering oneself unconscious of–the reality that one lacks the supposedly required desire.

            The second-order desire plays the repressive role. In effect, the agent says: “because I want to want having this desire, I have it; for the thought that I lack it is unthinkable and absolutely forbidden.” What is repressed here is that reality that the agent lacks the relevant desire. The confabulation constitutes the repression. It serves to drive reality away. In fact, in the quoted sentence above, the material after the semi-colon would be repressed along with everything else. Bringing it to consciousness would subvert the repression. That’s why it would be the basic point of entry in therapy. The therapist would need to induce the client to realize that if articulated, the thoughts motivating his repression would sound something like this: “What I really believe is that some thoughts about myself are unthinkable–not that I know what the fuck they are. I just shoot them down if they seem bad. I don’t really know what I’m shooting at, except that it’s X-ish. It doesn’t really matter. It’s all collateral damage. I just have to hit the X-enemy, regardless of whatever else I blow up along the way.”

            I won’t belabor the example in more detail than that. I think that explains why I regard it as repression. It’s not a clear case in the sense of being an easy case to explicate. It’s a clear case in the sense that it illustrates the form that repression takes in real-live people. Repression is an inherently complex, convoluted phenomenon. So an example of it has to mirror its structure.

            (That’s why, as Ray says, it is an exercise in futility to demand that repression be confirmed by experimentation of the sort that cognitive scientists typically engage in. If you read the literature on thought suppression–a related but importantly different concept–it becomes obvious that no one could confirm or disconfirm repression by current experimental methods. The methods themselves are simply too crude to track the phenomenon at issue. I cited a paper dated 1987 above, but I’ve read the literature through to the mid 2000s, and what I say holds for literally everything I’ve read. My point is, confirmation by current experimental methods is not the ontological criterion of what is allowed to exist, assuming we have independent introspective evidence of the thing’s existence–and we do.)

            Now, on the ethical issue in your last (big) paragraph:

            On the first point, I don’t have any major objections to what you say, I just think you’re operating on a level of ideal theory that strikes me as unrealistic and unreasonable to insist on in everyday practice. Yes, repression would be suboptimal in any case. But if the extent of psychic discord caused by coming to acknowledge some suppressed desire were very high and the difficulty of eliminating it also very high, then unless the desire is likely to be expressed in damaging ways, it seems rather excessively moralistic to demand that a person struggle through the process of acknowledging and eliminating a repressed desire simply because self-knowledge is better than self-deception.

            I don’t think it’s excessive. I think it’s exactly morality requires of everyone. Self-knowledge isn’t just “better” than self-deception; it’s culpable. When an agent is culpable, he has to acknowledge his own culpability and strive to reverse it. What he absolutely can’t do is deceive himself about his own culpability, then let it go, and distract himself with other things. But that’s what repression serves to do. It even serves to do that in people in whom repression comes to abet an excessive sense of guilt or shame. The excessive guilt or shame serves to conceal the actual culpability (which merits change, not excessive guilt or shame).

            Even if repression were merely suboptimal, if the agent can reach a better state, I don’t understand why–on perfectionist grounds–he shouldn’t do so. If a flourishing agent has an obligation (ought to, is required to…) to make the best life for herself, then acquiescence in the suboptimal is a moral lapse. But excusing moral lapses is the thin wedge of vice. So acquiescence is unwarranted.

            If the claim is that the “price of change is too high,” I’d say two things. First, we need an account of what “price too high” really means, or else we’re just fashioning an excuse for vice. The price of virtue always looks “too high” when vice is tempting.

            But suppose we have such an account. If so, “price too high” can only mean that the agent’s efforts at dealing with repression would undermine other morally valuable aspects of her life to such a degree that we should regard the repression as an insurmountable path-dependency and let it go. Fine. Assume that we could delimit those cases in that way. Such cases would be analogous to that of the smoker who realizes at age 83 that smoking is bad for your health, but doesn’t see the point in quitting now. Still, the fact remains that many cases of repression would fall outside of the delimited category (viz., “path dependent repressions not worth dealing with”).

            Let’s remember that the original example (yours) was repression of a desire that should not be there, i.e., that the agent should not have. A desire that the agent should not have is not a desire that the agent should have but keep submerged. It’s a desire that the agent should not have. But if we just stick to that characterization, repression involves an obvious mismatch of means to end: you cannot repress a desire out of existence. Repression conceals the desire without extinguishing it. If ex hypothesi, the desire should not be there (your characterization), repression is bound to be quixotic.

            Incidentally (well, it’s not merely incidental), repression has to be distinguished from suppression, and was clearly distinguished by Anna Freud. A suppression is a self-conscious act of repudiating a desire and training yourself out of it. A repression is an attempt to slam the door on cognition of the desire as such on the premise that suppression is something one can ill-afford with a desire as dangerous and forbidden as this one. Someone who’s repressing fundamentally doesn’t know what he’s doing or why. He just reflexively acts a certain way out of fear of indulging the forbidden. But a person in this state is not just lacking in a bit of self-knowledge. He’s out of control.

            As for this:

            I’m assuming the falsity of a view that I’ve seen at least suggested in much Freud-friendly literature, viz. that the repressed desire will inevitably lead the person into tremendously painful conflicts and/or will, if left repressed, erupt into some sort of soul-destroying overflow (psychoanalytic readings of Euripides’ Bacchae come to mind).

            Well, perhaps it’s false that the repressed desire will inevitably lead the person into tremendously painful conflicts and/or will erupt into soul-destroying overflow. But weaken the italicized terms, and you’re left with a more everyday version of a very common problem. Repressed desire can often lead many people into rather painful conflicts that give rise to myriad problems, whether from overflow, or a sense of self-alienation, or a general sense of malaise, or just not knowing why one is doing what one is doing. (I don’t know Euripides at all, so I can’t speak to your example.)

            If Bob has repressed sexual attractions to children, then as I’ve characterized repression, it’s not enough for him to “know” that the repression is “successful” at preventing him from acting on those desires. If Bob is repressing, he won’t know any of that. To the extent that he has repressed, he won’t be able to think clearly about any aspect of the issue: he won’t know what he’s repressing, why, how successful it is, etc. If he’s repressing, all he’ll know is that sex is a problem for him. When sex floats into his mind, it’s bad. So I’d say that repression is a failure of self-knowledge incompatible with your characterization of the case. (Milder cases of repression will yield milder versions of this incompatibility, but the general point remains true. Qua repressed, Bob will be at a loss to know what’s going on inside of him.) I think the basic Freudian insight is correct: failures of self-knowledge tend to ramify. The heroic virtue of self-imposed suffering in the name of self-knowledge doesn’t take precedence to a life of productive virtue, but insures that the agent doesn’t fool himself into thinking that a virtue-like routine of overtly productive-looking action can absolve him of the responsibility of knowing what he’s doing and why.

            If you’re not convinced by what I say, I’d just recommend reading Lear’s Freud (and his other psychoanalytic stuff). The Freud book is a tour de force. I can’t praise it enough.

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          • On your first major point (what repression is), I certainly find it overwhelmingly plausible that we can and do have subconscious desires or at least desires that are extraordinarily opaque to ourselves, that we can come to have or retain such desires through our own efforts to keep them out of our consciousness, and that this is different from suppression. So if that’s all there is to the concept of repression, I’m down with it. Decoupling it from the ‘hydraulic’ conception of desire and the reductive character of much of what Freud seems to say about desire is helpful.

            On the second major point (whether repression is always worse than the alternatives), I’m not convinced by what you say, so I’ll read Lear’s book, which has been recommended to me by several others. Alas, it’ll be a while, but I’ll plan to do it (and I won’t repress or suppress the desire to do so; hopefully I won’t forget it, either, so that we can avoid more debates about repressed memories). I suspect that at least some significant portion of our disagreement stems from differences in our assessment of how severe the consequences of repression are and how severe the consequences of un-repression are in normal cases. I haven’t thought about these issues a great deal, so I’m happy to admit that I might be overly optimistic and simply overreacting to the obvious excesses of some (quasi-)Freudians who discuss repression as though repressed desires, left unaddressed, will devour our souls.

            You should read the Bacchae sometime. I admit I don’t find it the masterpiece that many Hellenists do, but it’s interesting both as a piece of Greek tragedy and as a document in the history of religious thought. I’ll also admit that I once lectured on it, rejected the interpretation on which it centers on sexual repression, but argued that we can make better sense of it in terms of “gender repression” (so I have deployed these concepts in my amateurish way!). That was probably the day when I got the most looks from students that seemed to express the thought “what in the hell are you talking about?”

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          • Thanks. I should probably mention that Lear disputes the idea that Freud is sexually reductive, arguing that Freud intends a wholesale revision of the concept of sexuality. He only appears reductive (says Lear) if you assume a narrower conception of sexuality than Freud actually adopts, then assume that Freud is reducing all of human motivation to that narrow (non-Freudian) conception. But–(says Lear) he’s not.

            In an earlier comment I asserted something to the effect that Freud was reductive, but I now want to take that back and claim agnosticism. I hadn’t read Lear at the time. I haven’t entirely sorted through Lear’s view (which turns in part on a reading of Platonic eros), don’t know enough of Freud, and just plain don’t know enough to know exactly what to think or say about Freud’s sexual reductionism. The issue is somewhat analogous to Rand on selfishness, actually: if Randian selfishness is not conventional selfishness, one can’t evaluate it until one knows what it is. Likewise Freudian sexuality. Interestingly, both topics require a detour through Plato and Aristotle. Lear has another book devoted entirely to love/eros/sexuality, and it’s next on my list.

            I just recently re-read all of Sophocles, and am now working through Aeschylus (watch for Reading Aeschylus in Palestine, my forthcoming memoir). Euripides after that.

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  3. 1. What is repression?

    I think “repressed” is often used merely as a synonym for uptight. A “repressed” person is not sufficiently relaxed, open, bubbly, outgoing, etc. I ignore this sense from here on.

    In a more technical sense, it means that a person has emotions, they are there, but they are not allowed to be felt. They have been submerged. But this is futile process, since they will only resurface elsewhere. The resurfacing can take surprising forms, often as an unwanted psychological symptom.

    2. Is repression inherently sexual?

    No.

    3. Is repression always a bad thing, or can it ever be a good thing?

    I think it is supposed to be generally bad, for the reason given above. Better to deal with emotions at the source, is the thinking. Whether some people might think there are exceptions, I don’t know.

    4. Would you (off the cuff) regard your conception of “repression” as having been influenced by Freud in some “significant” way? (I’ll leave you to define “significant”).

    I would say everyone’s conception has been influenced by Freud, since I think he invented the notion. And really, it only makes sense within the psychodynamic tradition. Without that tradition, I doubt we would have a concept of repression.

    5. Do you regard “repression” as a scientifically credible concept, e.g., as having gotten experimental support?

    No. As Seligman explains in his two page trashing of repression and related ideas in Authentic Happiness, repression assumes a “hydraulic” conception of emotion, according to which the emotional realm is like a sealed water balloon, and so you can’t press in on it in one place without building pressure for an inevitable popping out someplace else. Without this sort of conception—which is really the essence of psychodynamics—the very idea of repression makes no sense. So the question is, what reason do we have to believe in emotional hydraulics? Just because it is an engaging metaphor is not a reason to believe it is true. What I believe the evidence indicates is that emotions don’t fester and erupt—unless you dwell on them, for example in misguided therapy—they naturally dissipate. (Seligman gives a few references.) This (that emotions fade) is so obvious, I don’t see how the opposite idea could ever have taken hold without Freud’s malign influence.

    The concept of repression has had some very harmful consequences. I’m short of time now and can’t provide references, but just do a little search on the scandals of clinical claims about “repressed memories” of childhood sexual abuse and about Dissociative Identity Disorder.

    I wouldn’t call myself a professional psychologist and certainly not an expert on Freud or repression, though as you know I have a PhD in psychology and did a postdoc before deciding I didn’t want to be a psychologist.

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  4. What is repression?

    R. is an automatic defense mechanism of the mind to remove from consciousness (readily accessible memory) psychically disturbing experiences. It’s an attempt to maintain psychic equilibrium after an experience that deeply challenges a subject’s sense of existential security. Since “nothing that has once entered consciousness can ever disappear,” the memory of the experience is lodged in the unconscious mind.

    Is R. essentially sexual?

    No.

    Is R. always a bad thing, or can it be a good thing?

    Since the automatic mechanism is triggered in response to an experience that threatens one’s existential security, it is a “good” thing. To the degree that the repressed experience conflicts with reality, it is a bad thing.

    Yes, my notion of “repression” is primarily influenced by my understanding of Freud’s way of thinking.

    Yes, I believe that my notion of “repression,” based on my understanding of Freud’s thinking, has scientific support.

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    • “Nothing that has once entered consciousness can ever disappear.” Why think that’s true? My own miserable life seems to present plenty of evidence against it. I mean, I’ve been studying ancient Greek for about 13 years now, have a PhD in Classics, and I still have to keep looking up certain words and phrases that I’ve looked up more times than I care to count. I forget lots of stuff. I even forget stuff that I once was able to remember without looking it up. Something is still there, since I know that I’ve looked these things up, or know that I used to be able to recall them at will, but something definitely seems not to be there, viz. the thing I have to look up for the umpteenth time. And I have a better memory than many people do (otherwise I’d never have been able to get that PhD). Isn’t this very strong, if not decisive, evidence against the claim that nothing that has once entered consciousness can ever disappear?

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      • David,

        I agree with you that John’s way of putting the point is overstated, but I think there is a more modest way of putting the point that preserves the gist of what he’s trying to say:

        1. People seriously underestimate the psychological importance of how they process apparently trivial events.
        2. People seriously overestimate their capacity to overcome past psychological trauma, prematurely relegating it to the category of “It happened such a long time ago, I’m over it now.”

        It’s not that nothing that once entered consciousnes can ever disappear, but that a great deal that is of great psychological importance enters consciousness and needs processing but (for a huge variety of reasons) fails to get it, to the detriment of the person in question.

        I don’t quite agree with John’s way of characterizing repression, because I don’t agree that repression is as tied to repressed memories as he thinks. As I said elsewhere (in response to David Potts), repression = repressed memories is a textbook view that’s become canonical, but it’s misleading. Memories can be repressed, but repressed memory is not essential to a characterization of the concept of repression. That said, if one wants to focus on repressed memories, I agree with the spirit but not the letter of what John is saying. In other words, I’d say that his overstatement contains a large grain of non-trivial (and underappreciated) truth.

        There’s more to say, but for now I’ll just say that I basically agree with Ray Raad vs. David Potts in the discussion down below. I’m still expecting to get some more responses from a few psychologists I know, and will try to write some more when I get the chance.

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    • Since I earlier commented on the scientific status of repressed memory claims, to the effect that that status is very low, but said I didn’t have time to provide references, maybe this is a good prompt to provide some.

      Perhaps the best place to start would be with this article by Elizabeth Loftus and Melvin Guyer, “Who Abused Jane Doe?: The Hazards of the Single Case History.” The article recounts the authors’ investigation into the facts of a widely reported case of purported childhood sexual abuse, which was “revealed” by the supposed recovery of repressed memories. The article is long but engagingly written.

      I believe you will find it difficult to find an informed experimental psychologist who believes there’s much reality behind repressed memory claims—though a lot of clinical psychologists have apparently not yet read the memo (see Patihis et al., “Are the ‘Memory Wars’ Over? A Scientist-Practitioner Gap in Beliefs about Repressed Memory”). There’s a huge and continuing literature debunking repressed memory claims, but the classic article is again by Loftus: “The Reality of Repressed Memories.”

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      • I take your point, but the original question was about the scientific status of the concept of repression, not the scientific status of claims about repressed memories of trauma. So no debunking of the latter counts as a debunking of the former tout court.

        I found Simon Boag’s “Freudian Repression, the Common View, and Pathological Science” (Review of General Psychology 2006, 10:1) useful on this point. The abstract:

        A sustained misconceptualisation of a theory leading to invalid applications and inferences indicates a failure in the scientific process. This has repeatedly occurred with Freud’s theory of repression, a cornerstone of psychoanalytic theory. This paper traces the development of Freud’s theory of repression and compares this with the “common view” found in mainstream psychology: the motivated forgetting of trauma. A fixation with Freud’s original, and superseded theory (1893–1897) ignores the theoretical developments that constitute mature psychoanalysis (1900 –1940), and has impacted upon attempts to test Freudian theory and the current “recovered memory” debate. Although certain accidental factors contribute to this misunderstanding, the sustained failure to comprehend Freudian repression reveals a breakdown in the process of critical inquiry. Implications for psychology as a whole are discussed.

        I haven’t read enough of Freud to evaluate the thesis of Boag’s paper as such. All I can say, based on what I have read, is that he makes a fair point. For the reasons Boag gives, one can’t easily saddle Freud with the sins of the repressed memory movement. If Boag is right, repressed memory is a theory that Freud formulated in his early writings, then disavowed, then replaced with a new theory in which what is repressed is an “instinctual urge,” not a memory. Freud’s Papers on Metapsychology bear out Boag’s interpretation (“Instincts and their Vicissitudes,” “Repression,” and “The Unconscious,” in Standard Edition, vol. 14).

        Contrary to Boag, it’s a separate question whether the idea of repressed memories of childhood sexual trauma is, in some broader sense, Freudian. Boag too quickly assumes that because it’s not what Freud says, there is no sense in which it is Freudian. But he’s right to insist that the other side bears the burden of proof here. If they want to debunk Freudian repression by debunking repressed memories of sexual trauma, they owe their readers an explanation of the claim that repression of memories of sexual trauma is a Freudian idea in the first place. Boag claims that Loftus and others fail to do this.

        Boag is also right that many textbooks repeat the unqualified mantra that Freudian repression just is repression of memories of sexual trauma. I own four textbooks of abnormal or counseling psychology. Of the three that mention “repression” at all, all three follow the pattern that Boag describes. Not one so much as hints at the claims of the mature theory that Freud defended in his major metapsychological works on repression.

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        • Yes, I agree, the question of repressed memories of childhood sexual trauma is a specific hypothesis. If it turns out that this hypothesis is unsupported, there may nevertheless be other sorts of memories, desires, beliefs, etc. that do get repressed. However, repression of memories of childhood sexual trauma is the main instance of repression advanced by contemporary psychologists—as you document from your textbooks. Therefore, it makes sense to test it. And if this test fails, what are the chances likely to be for other, less prominent examples? That’s not an argument, of course. Let them be tested, then we’ll know. My guess is that similar results are liable to be forthcoming.

          I’m suspicious of Boag’s strategy of denying that Loftus et al. are testing the right hypothesis. Does that mean that if repressed memories of traumatic childhood sexual abuse had been confirmed, Boag would say, “Oh no, no, no! That’s not the right theory of repression! Freud’s theory of repression has not been confirmed. In fact, it seems that Freud was wrong.” Somehow, I doubt that’s what he would say.

          As for the motivations of Loftus and others in focusing on claims of repressed memories of childhood sexual trauma, I’m pretty sure it has nothing to do with a supposed fixation on Freud’s abandoned early theory and ignorance of his later work. My guess would be that Loftus actually knows little about Freud and cares rather less. (I can tell you for sure that Freud is not taught at all in good quality, contemporary Ph.D. programs in cognitive, experimental psychology. I had to read Freud on my own.) I believe her concerns are two. First, there is the demonstrable harm that comes to people as the result of bogus claims of childhood sexual abuse in the form of accusations, recriminations, broken families, lawsuits, and imprisonment. (For an example, see the Loftus and Guyer piece.) If these claims are mostly bogus, then that is a serious concern.

          Second, I think this controversy is continuous with a longstanding battle that has been going on at least since Paul Meehl’s (brilliant) essays of the 1950s, in which scientifically-minded psychologists criticize what they see as the excesses of clinicians who form strong theoretical convictions on the basis of their clinical experience, which can be subjectively very powerful but which is not the same as the scientific method. One of the criticisms brought against claims of repressed memories, for example, is that the proponents of these claims seem remarkably uninterested in independently verifying the events that have supposedly been remembered. This is especially apparent in the case Dissociative Identity Disorder (whose root cause is supposed to be repressed memories of childhood sexual trauma). These patients sometimes make very strong claims about their behavior when their “alters” are in control, such as committing murders, sexually molesting their own children, and participating in Satanic cult orgies. The therapists in question apparently have no trouble believing these claims on the basis of their clinical intuition, but have considerable trouble exerting themselves to seek corroborating evidence. (The claims I just cited are an actual example, and the therapist in question, Dr. Bennett Braun of Chicago, was a leading light of DID “research” at the time, founder and head of the DID Unit at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Lukes Medical Center in Chicago, the first unit of its kind in the United States.)

          For a scathing indictment of DID research, see August Piper, Jr., “Multiple Personality Disorder: Witchcraft Survives in the Twentieth Century.” Piper has more recent and more scholarly articles on this, but this article is more readable.

          On the many problems that science-minded psychologists have with (in their view) unfounded clinical practice, you might have a look at Scott O. Lilienfeld, “Psychological Treatments That Cause Harm.”

          Finally, as to whether repression of memories of childhood sexual trauma is a Freudian idea in a broad sense, whether or not it was Freud’s own idea, surely it is. (Though maybe I don’t know what you mean by broadly Freudian.) The people making these claims are publishing them in psychoanalytical journals and regard themselves as in the psychoanalytic tradition. The textbook authors you cite regard these claims as Freudian. I don’t think it’s reasonable to say that all these people just don’t know what they’re talking about. Moreover, as I argued before, without Freud I don’t think we would even have the concept of repression. Really, there is no room for repression in current cognitive psychology. If we can say that the standard view currently is that there are controlled, slow, effortful processes on the one hand, and automatic, fast, effortless processes on the other, and that of the latter, the most important is the vast network of associative memory—well, associative memory quickly processes perceptual and linguistic inputs, scripts, schemas, and scenarios, raising the level of activation of everything associated with whatever is being processed and forming new associative structures in the process, but “repressing” material is not its bag. I’m not sure how that would even happen. It is an essentially positive (“associative”) system. Obviously a suitable mechanism could be added to current theory if the need arose, but I am not aware of any current work in cognitive psychology that provides even the capability for a repression mechanism in associative memory.

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  5. Ok, since you asked us to indicate our backgrounds, I am a psychiatrist and am studying Psychoanalysis (although I’m skeptical of many of its claims). I will disagree with some of the prior comments. Here we go:

    1. Although lots of people think of repression in terms of emotions, that’s not what it usually refers to. Freud thought that it was ideas that were repressed. Repression is a process of taking an idea or a desire/motivation entirely out of one’s awareness. The associated emotion may or may not be in awareness. Think of a guy who goes through a breakup with his girlfriend, and tells himself and everyone else that he is doing well (and truly believes it), but who has trouble sleeping at night and is more irritable. The anger (irritable) is still in awareness, but the cause is out of awareness.

    When we say that “John is repressed”, we mean that John holds a lot of his desires and ideas out of awareness.

    2. Is repression inherently sexual?

    No. But let me explain why Freud thought it was. Repression needs a motivation. Usually one represses an idea or a desire that one does not want to hold, because it conflicts with an overall image one wants to have about oneself. For example, you repress your desire to be rich, because you want to think of yourself as a selfless saint. Freud thought that of all human motivations, only the sexual one prone to conflicts intense enough to motivate repression. That’s because the natural desire for sex conflicted with cultural ideals.

    3. Is repression always a bad thing, or can it ever be a good thing?

    Always bad. Your view on this comes down to your view of human nature. If you think, as freud did, that people at their core have strong urges to hurt others and have sex with anything that moves, then you’ll think repression is good. If you are catholic and think people have been corrupted, then repression is good. But I think people are essentially good – at their core, they want to live, have achievements, connect productively with other people, and love. Negative desires are almost always a result of some corruption, and usually there’s a noble goal at the bottom. So I think repression is bad.

    4. Would you (off the cuff) regard your conception of “repression” as having been influenced by Freud in some “significant” way? (I’ll leave you to define “significant”).

    Yes, I agree with Freud that repression has to do with ideas/memories/desires, not emotions.

    5. Do you regard “repression” as a scientifically credible concept, e.g., as having gotten experimental support?

    Yes. Some of the evidence comes from trauma victims with PTSD. Often they have lots of residual symptoms, but they do not remember their traumatic experience. CBT therapy consists of getting them to remember and tell the story of their trauma over and over again. At first, they usually remember just bits and pieces. Then more and more comes back to them. I suppose a skeptic can say that they aren’t remembering anything – they are making up the story as they go along. But I find it more plausible that some of the actual events are coming back to them.

    Some further evidence comes from the frequent experience of experiencing an emotion but not knowing why. Everyone has had this experience. You’re angry, or you’re sad, and you don’t know why. But an emotion has to have a cause. And in many cases, after therapy, or after solitary reflection, the reason becomes clear – for example, something that happened recently. Well that something was in awareness recently, and then was out of awareness, yet it caused an emotion.

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    • Hi Raymond. I’m sure we’ll never agree, but I’ll respond briefly to some of what you say.

      Repression is a process of taking an idea or a desire/motivation entirely out of one’s awareness. The associated emotion may or may not be in awareness. Think of a guy who goes through a breakup with his girlfriend, and tells himself and everyone else that he is doing well (and truly believes it), but who has trouble sleeping at night and is more irritable. The anger (irritable) is still in awareness, but the cause is out of awareness.

      This strikes me as an example of denial, not repression. An example of repression of an idea might be that you believe deep down that your parents hate you, but you are totally unaware that you believe this; the belief is repressed. At the same time, you exhibit signs of sexual masochism, say, as the result of the unconscious activity of your repressed belief.

      I guess I just frankly don’t believe in repressed beliefs. The notion that a person could have a belief of the kind described in the example but be totally unaware of it—I think that notion is groundless. For the basic reason, see my recent reply to Irfan.

      Some of the evidence comes from trauma victims with PTSD. Often they have lots of residual symptoms, but they do not remember their traumatic experience. CBT therapy consists of getting them to remember and tell the story of their trauma over and over again. At first, they usually remember just bits and pieces. Then more and more comes back to them. I suppose a skeptic can say that they aren’t remembering anything – they are making up the story as they go along. But I find it more plausible that some of the actual events are coming back to them.

      Would it surprise you to learn that I am also skeptical of many claims concerning PTSD? (Imagine a smiley face here.) The late appearance of “memories” in some PTSD patients certainly warrants skepticism. For argument to this effect—and for critical analysis of the psychology and especially the overdiagnosis of PTSD—see this excellent article originally from Scientific American: David Dobbs, “The PTSD Trap.”

      Some further evidence comes from the frequent experience of experiencing an emotion but not knowing why. Everyone has had this experience. You’re angry, or you’re sad, and you don’t know why.

      I’m not sure what to say about this one. This is not an experience I can say is familiar. I’m not prone to sadness, but I get angry all too often. I always know why.

      Generally, what I would like to see is research verifying the reality of repression that is not based just on clinical impressions, intuition, and what the practitioner finds plausible.

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      • Hi David, thanks for your reply. Here’s my reply to you…

        “I’m sure we’ll never agree”

        Don’t be so pessimistic 🙂 If we’re both open minded and rational, we just might…

        As a first step, though, I think that if we are going to give repression a chance here, we should work with the most plausible example. Working with an already implausible or complex example is like working with an uncharitable reading of someone you are criticizing.

        The example that I described is repression. In psychoanalytic theory, the difference between repression and denial is that repression involves keeping an internal stimulus out of awareness, whereas denial is about keeping an external stimulus out of awareness. In my example, the guy is keeping his urge to get back at her out of awareness. Your example is about more than just repression. The repression part is keeping the belief that your parents hate you out of awareness. But then you also have sexual masochism, so there’s a re-emergence of the repressed idea in sexual form. One can believe in repression without the re-emergence-in-sexual-form part.

        Repression has a basis in cognitive psychology. It goes under various names. Self-deception is one. Cognitive inhibition is another. Cognitive inhibition is a process of selectively tuning out stimuli that run against a person’s beliefs or purposes. When the stimulus is an internal desire, and the tuning out process is persistent, the result is repression (even if it goes by another name).

        Now, regarding PTSD, yes it is over diagnosed, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Yes, new memories that suddenly appear warrant skepticism, but that’s not the typical scenario. Typically a person has witnessed or experienced a very specific identifiable event, but one’s memory of the event is patchy, sometimes very patchy. The recovered memory over time may not be accurate – it may be wrong in some of its details – but are you saying it’s entirely made up all the time?

        “This is not an experience I can say is familiar. I’m not prone to sadness, but I get angry all too often. I always know why.”

        I can’t refute this without knowing you. But if this is true, then you must be unusually insightful and self aware. And even if you know why you are angry at a moment, do you know why you are angry and not, say, sad? Do you know why you get angry all too often? Emotions bring together lots of memories in addition to the current situation one is facing, and so there are multiple causal chains that lead to any given emotion. The is a basic foundational principle of many forms of psychotherapy. And there are entire fields of study dedicated to expanding peoples’ emotional awareness – a testament to how much many people still have to learn and develop in this area.

        “Generally, what I would like to see is research verifying the reality of repression that is not based just on clinical impressions, intuition, and what the practitioner finds plausible.”

        What kind of study would convince you? One of the difficulties in this area is that it’s hard to design a study that teases apart a specific psychological process like this.

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        • Hi again, Raymond. Maybe we aren’t so far apart, after all. I don’t see a whole lot to disagree with in your response. But it looks to me like the concept of repression you wish to defend is different from the one I wish to attack.

          The concept of repression I’m talking about is that there is a belief, desire, emotion, feeling, etc. that is there in your mind, but of which you are unconscious. Thus, you don’t know about it, you can’t feel it, you can’t identify it directly, because it is not in your awareness. Your example does not fit this picture. The person who is angry at his girlfriend is angry and knows it. He is aware of it. He just refuses to accept it for anger at his girlfriend. He insists it is something else. Meanwhile he is irritable at other things. This is totally plausible and understandable, but it’s just not repression (as I understand it). It’s denial.

          The same process goes on in intellectual debates. Proponents of philosophical theories (and scientific theories, all too often) hardly ever change their minds, and they often even refuse to acknowledge points against them. I have personally run into this frequently in the case of advocates of the philosophy of Karl Popper (just for one example; there are lots of others). In debate with such a person, it has been my experience that we reach a stage where Popper’s defender refuses to acknowledge the logical point being made against him. Popper’s philosophy is mostly admirably clear, simple, and logical, so the logical point—it seems to me—is fairly unambiguous. Thus my interlocutor’s failure to get the point is particularly striking. And no matter what I do or say, he will not get it. There is always some way of misconstruing the point, misinterpreting what I say, changing the subject, etc., and he will always find a way, until I acknowledge that the debate is futile. And by the way, I don’t mean that he is consciously being evasive. He is completely sincere, and probably even thinks I am the one being unreasonable. Nevertheless, what is going on becomes clear after enough time.

          This is frustrating, but again it is completely plausible and understandable, and I’m sure many of us have had such experiences. And this is exactly the sort of thing, it seems to me, that you are talking about, in terms of the relevant psychological mechanisms. And of course you’re right, this sort of thing has been studied empirically a great deal, generally under the heading of motivated cognition. But I think it would be odd to call it repression.

          In my own example, there is a thought the person has, that his parents hate him, and it is real, it is active in determining his behavior and his other thoughts and feelings, but he has no idea that it exists. He does not misidentify it or misinterpret it, because he has no awareness of it to begin with. It is “repressed.”

          There’s no reason this sort of repression couldn’t be the subject of empirical study, just in the same way as motivated cognition is empirically studied. It would require getting serious about exactly what repression is and what mechanisms are involved, so they could be studied piecemeal. I mean, what exactly is the means whereby thoughts are kept out of consciousness? What triggers the process? How do repressed thoughts participate in or influence nonrepressed thought processes? If these things happen in clinically relevant situations, they must happen in general, and they ought to be observable in laboratory or other, nonclinical situations. It’s a matter of getting serious about treating your psychology as science. I’m afraid I don’t think that’s really the Freudians’ bag.

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          • David,

            You say:

            The concept of repression I’m talking about is that there is a belief, desire, emotion, feeling, etc. that is there in your mind, but of which you are unconscious. Thus, you don’t know about it, you can’t feel it, you can’t identify it directly, because it is not in your awareness. Your example does not fit this picture.

            His example doesn’t fit your picture of repression because the concept of repression you’re talking about is not the one he’s talking about, is not the one used in the psychoanalytic literature, and is not the only conception out there (to put it mildly) of what repression is. What Ray said was:

            In psychoanalytic theory, the difference between repression and denial is that repression involves keeping an internal stimulus out of awareness, whereas denial is about keeping an external stimulus out of awareness.

            Are you disputing that? It’s standard-issue psychoanalytic theory, much more obviously standard than the idea that repression = repressed traumatic memories. The latter idea comes up in textbook writers who clearly have not read Freud, or have not read him carefully, or read him in decades. These are writers who, when called on to explicate Freud (because they have to write a textbook, and therefore have to explicate Freud) call on their “repressed memories” of what Freud said rather than reading him. Having done so, they ascribe to him theories he disavowed, then “forget” to mention the theory he actually avowed. That strikes me as the paradigm of not know what one is talking about. It’s actually a very common situation with textbooks across disciplines. The author feels obliged to discuss the history of his subject (because that’s what textbooks do) but doesn’t actually know any (because history isn’t important).

            Here are the characterizations of denial and repression from George Vaillant’s Adaptation to Life (1977). Vaillant is a psychoanalytically trained psychiatrist. He’s clearly read both Freuds. The book is a treatise rather than a textbook. His distinction corresponds closely (not exactly) to Ray’s (but closely enough to Ray’s to contrast sharply with what you’re saying to Ray). This is from the book’s glossary of ego defense mechanisms (Appendix A, pp. 383, 385).

            Level I–“Psychotic” Mechanisms

            2. DENIAL. Denial of external reality.

            Unlike repression, denial, as here defined, affects perception of external reality (e.g., “girls do so got penises”) more than perception of internal reality (e.g., “I am not angry”). It includes fantasy as a major substitute for other people–especially absent other people (e.g., “I will make a new him in my own mind”).

            [snip]

            Level III–“Neurotic” Defenses

            10. REPRESSION. Seemingly inexplicable naivete, memory lapse, or failure to acknowledge input from a selected sense organ. The feeling is in consciousness, but the idea is missing.

            The “forgetting” of repression is unique in that it is often accompanied by highly symbolic behavior which suggests that the repressed is not really forgotten. The mechanism differs from suppression by effecting unconscious inhibition of impulse to the point of losing, not just postponing, cherished goals. Unlike denial, it blocks conscious perception of instincts and feelings rather than recognition of and response to external events. If a man were weeping but forgot for whom he wept, this would be repression; if he denied the existence of his tears or insisted that the mourned one was still alive, this would represent denial.

            Different example: if a woman blows me a kiss, and I insist that the blown kiss is just an optical illusion, that’s denial; if I insist that I’m not in love with her when I am, that’s repression.

            Notice that the denial in this example can be motivated by repression (and that the combination of repression and denial can constitute a single defensive phenomenon consisting of cycles of the one followed by the other). Notice also that the repression does not require total non-consciousness of my being in love with her. It merely requires a sincere disavowal at t1 of being in love with her, followed (e.g.) at t2 of the inkling that I might be in love with her (felt as a panicked sense of impending doom), followed at t3 by my shutting down the thought that I am, etc. But since “being in love with her” is an introspective report on my internal states, denying that I’m in love with her when I’m in love with her is repression, not denial. If I then begin to insist that she’s ugly when she’s not, the repression has led to denial. There are, I’m sure, borderline cases, but the distinction is pretty clear, and within the psychoanalytic tradition, it’s canonical.

            It’s worth noting that Vaillant’s account of repression does not require the complete non-consciousness of the repressed desire that you’ve insisted on. I am not even sure that Freud demanded that, but maybe he did. Textually, it’s a disputed question. But complete non-consciousness is not essential to repression in the psychoanalytic tradition. On a standard account, repression takes place by dissociation, but dissociation requires at least some awareness of the existence and nature of the dissociated item (cf. Herbert Fingarette, “Self-deception and the ‘splitting of the ego,'” in Philosophical Essays on Freud).

            By the way, there is a real difference between saying that the denial/repression distinction is a broadly Freudian distinction but repression = repressed memories is not. The difference is that the denial/repression distinction has a clear textual basis in things Freud avowed. But the repression = repressed memories equation is something he explicitly disavowed. That the latter equation shows up in psychoanalytic journals (or in textbooks) is beside the point. Dialectic is an idea that shows up in the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies. It doesn’t follow from that alone that dialectic is a broadly Randian concept. Anarchism is an idea that shows up in Locke Studies. It doesn’t follow from that alone that anarchism is a broadly Lockean idea.

            So I would insist on the claim I originally made: if someone wants to claim that repressed memories is a Freudian idea, even in the broad sense of “Freudian,” he has to make a textual case for it on the basis of the claims Freud avowed, not on the basis of claims Freud disowned. I regard that as a general principle of textual interpretation: ascription of a thesis to an author in any sense has to be based on something he not only said, but publicly avowed. I’ve recently made a similar point aganist Kevin Vallier about Locke in this discussion. Vallier does what so many people so casually do: he ascribes to Locke a view that Locke expressed in unpublished works and later disavowed, then forgets the disavowal and treats the unpublished view as canonical (butchering the published view along the way). That’s not just wrong, but an inversion of the legitimate procedure.

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  6. Hi again David,

    Thanks for the response. Our disagreement, as you say, and as Irfan mentions as well, really does come down to what we consider repression to be. Given this, I’m not entirely sure why you reject my definition and example. I understand that this is not what you have considered repression to be. But allow me to make a case that my example is a lot closer to your idea of repression than you presume. Here is your definition:

    “The concept of repression I’m talking about is that there is a belief, desire, emotion, feeling, etc. that is there in your mind, but of which you are unconscious. Thus, you don’t know about it, you can’t feel it, you can’t identify it directly, because it is not in your awareness.”

    That’s not far from what I had in mind. In my example, a guy is irritable with other people after a breakup with his girlfriend. Here it is in your restatement of it…

    “Your example does not fit this picture. The person who is angry at his girlfriend is angry and knows it. He is aware of it. He just refuses to accept it for anger at his girlfriend. He insists it is something else. Meanwhile he is irritable at other things. This is totally plausible and understandable, but it’s just not repression (as I understand it).”

    But it IS repression according to your definition. This guy is angry and knows it. But he is unaware that he is angry at his girlfriend. He therefore holds certain implicit beliefs – for example, that his girlfriend wronged him, or that she promised him a long relationship and didn’t deliver, or some other such thought – that causes his anger. Yet he is unaware of having that thought.

    Do you see it differently?

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  7. Hi Raymond.

    But it IS repression according to your definition. This guy is angry and knows it. But he is unaware that he is angry at his girlfriend. He therefore holds certain implicit beliefs – for example, that his girlfriend wronged him, or that she promised him a long relationship and didn’t deliver, or some other such thought – that causes his anger. Yet he is unaware of having that thought. Do you see it differently?

    I don’t see it very differently, but the little bit of difference I have matters a lot. The difference is that I doubt that the implicit beliefs you speak of are merely implicit. I would say that either they are there explicitly or they are not there at all. Take first the case of such beliefs being there explicitly. This is not incompatible with the guy’s refusal to acknowledge that he is angry at his girlfriend. He can tell himself, if he thinks his girlfriend wronged him, that he doesn’t care about that, that he was in the wrong too, that he needs to be the bigger person, and so forth. In other words, he can engage in the sort of motivated cognition by which people maintain cherished beliefs and avoid unwanted conclusions. People are very resourceful at this. Maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t see that there’s any need in this scenario for mental content that is out of awareness.

    Now for the second case. In saying there may be no such beliefs, I mean it is possible that an emotion is the product of automatic processing whose sources one does not know. As I think about it, it strikes me that the sources of emotions can often be pretty subtle. For instance, something a person does in a certain situation might hurt your feelings, but it can be unclear exactly what it is about the situation or the person’s action that hurts your feelings. You have to think to put your finger on what’s wrong. You can have emotions without knowing exactly why because associative memory computes results that aren’t in your awareness. So there can be an emotion without an accompanying belief. (In one respect you should be gratified here. It means I am retracting my earlier claim to always know why I’m, say, angry. That was too hasty. I was thinking only of clear cases, not of the many subtler ones.)

    For all I know, the second case is typical. Perhaps emotions are always the result of automatic, associative processing, the outcome of which is an emotion, not a belief. Perhaps we are always left to infer the basis of any emotion. In the case of gross, familiar emotions with gross, obvious causes, the inference is easy and automatic. But even in the gross cases, perhaps, the inference had to be learned originally.

    Now, you may be thinking that I have just completely given the game away, because what are these automatically computed “results” of associative memory—what could they be—but beliefs? And I have just admitted that we are unaware of them. And isn’t that just what you’re saying? So, case closed!

    It is here, I suspect, that we reach the root cause of our disagreement. I don’t think the deliverances of associative processing are, as such, beliefs, though they can produce beliefs. Take the best case for the idea that associative processing produces belief: not where the result is an emotion but where it is an explicit representational conclusion about the world. One example would be the gambler’s fallacy. After watching rolls of a roulette wheel come up red ten times in a row, you may well find yourself thinking that black is now “due” and has become more likely. This thought is an automatic result of associative processing, and it may result—especially if you know nothing of probability theory—in your forming the belief that black has become more probable. Another example, from thinking in stereotypes, would be a person who is contemplating buying a Lotto ticket, the kind where you choose six numbers, who refuses to get a ticket with the numbers 1 2 3 4 5 6 on the ground that for the winning ticket to have just that sequence would be too improbable. The truth, obviously, is that that sequence is no more improbable than any other, say 24 14 2 37 12 25. But whereas the latter sequence fits the stereotype of randomness, the former looks like a freak accident, and associative memory tells you it is extremely unlikely, more so (somehow) than the random-looking sequence.

    Now, I say that even in cases like this, the feeling that black has become more likely and that a ticket with 1 2 3 4 5 6 could never win should not be counted as beliefs. One may form beliefs because of them, of course, but the message that is coming from associative memory (“black is due”, “1 2 3 4 5 6 could never win”) is not already belief. Beliefs are judgments about the world that are responsive to reason and evidence. The deliverances of associative memory are deterministic outputs of automated processing. The automated processing is typically heuristic in nature, and in any event it is blind to considerations of evidence and reason. Notice that in the examples above, it makes no difference how much you may rehearse the facts of probability theory and prove that a string of red throws doesn’t make black more probable and that one randomly chosen sequence of six numbers is equiprobable with any other—the message to the contrary from associative memory is as loud and clear and persistent as ever. Put another way, no amount of “therapy” will change it. Associative memory is not the repository of unconscious “beliefs” about probabilities and other things. Its deliverances are the result of short bursts of deterministic processing operating on the contents—which are accessible to consciousness—that have accumulated there. Its messages make their appearance and are gone. So, these messages are not beliefs.

    I suppose that emotions work similarly. In the case of emotions, the emotion is the “message.” It may result from things you believe—this seems inevitable, really—but then those beliefs will be explicit. It may result from automated processing whose determinants are not obvious. But these are not beliefs.

    If the above seems reasonable to you, then we may disagree on no more than the labels. But I think repression is supposed to involve something more than what I have described. It is not a thought or emotion or desire you refuse to acknowledge, but one that you are not aware of, so that no question of acknowledgement arises. Repressed thoughts, etc. inhabit a subterranean realm of dark cognition, which operates more or less like ordinary cognition, but unconsciously. Such thoughts operate as thoughts, but they are “dissociated.” This is what I mean to deny.

    If what I have said about associative memory not being the Freudian unconscious and not producing beliefs has not been enough to convince you, you might be interested in some papers by Tamar Gendler, who has expressly taken on this issue. She says the deliverances of associative memory (and other innate or habitual processes) should be called “aliefs,” not beliefs. The only paper I’ve been able to find online is “Alief and Belief”. Not that you need more than one; they’re all pretty much the same.

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  8. Hi David,

    That’s a very helpful comment. I’m finding this enlightening. And I think we agree on almost everything (Except labels). But I do disagree on a couple of items. let me explain:

    “Take first the case of such beliefs being there explicitly. This is not incompatible with the guy’s refusal to acknowledge that he is angry at his girlfriend. He can tell himself, if he thinks his girlfriend wronged him, that he doesn’t care about that, that he was in the wrong too, that he needs to be the bigger person, and so forth. In other words, he can engage in the sort of motivated cognition by which people maintain cherished beliefs and avoid unwanted conclusions.”

    I think in this case there must be SOME idea or connection that is out of awareness. He can tell himself that he doesn’t care about that, but if that were true he wouldn’t be angry. So he does care. Basically when someone engages in motivated cognition, some unwanted conclusion is avoided and therefore kept out of awareness (or one of the logical steps along the way is kept out of awareness). Let’s leave aside for the moment whether that conclusion is a “belief” or something else like an “Alief”‘; either way it’s something in the mind that is pushed aside, so to speak. Do you see it differently?

    Now on to the meat of your comment:

    “I suppose that emotions work similarly. In the case of emotions, the emotion is the “message.” It may result from things you believe—this seems inevitable, really—but then those beliefs will be explicit. It may result from automated processing whose determinants are not obvious. But these are not beliefs.”

    I think it’s reasonable for you to say that automated processing outputs are not beliefs, and to reserve the word “belief” to something held explicitly. But in this case, you are still agreeing in content with the idea of repression. Freud was very clear that what is repressed is not explicit beliefs, but what he called “primary process” – which are automatic associations, vague images and narratives. They come a lot closer to “Alief” in that paper that you link too. If your claim is simply that explicit beliefs are not repressed, then I agree with you and we are all on the same page.

    By the way I found the paper on Alief and belief great – thanks for the link. I don’t like the word “alief” but putting that aside, that’s precisely how the mind works. Much of the content of our mind is vague ideas that are not stated in words.

    One last comment of yours I want to respond to:

    “Repressed thoughts, etc. inhabit a subterranean realm of dark cognition, which operates more or less like ordinary cognition, but unconsciously. Such thoughts operate as thoughts, but they are “dissociated.”

    I think “realm of dark cognition” is part of Freud’s view, but I don’t think that the one concept “repression” encompasses all of Freud’s edifice. I agree with you that there’s no dark id. I do think that repressed aliefs (to use your preferred language) operate as thoughts TO SOME EXTENT – in that they affect behavior, as in the cases that Gendler brings up. Would you agree with that?

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