Defense Mechanisms

Defense mechanisms can be biological or psychological. The biological defense mechanism is a physiological response that protects or preserves organisms. For example, when humans experience a danger or a threat, the “fight or flight” response kicks in. Adrenaline and other chemicals are activated and physical symptoms such as rapid heart rate and increased blood pressure occur.

For example, when an anxious learner pilot reacts to impending and full stalls during practice, the anxiety that the learner pilot may feel may resolve itself into a “fight or flight” response. There may be limited time to analyze the problem. Therefore, the learner needs the opportunity to experience and develop a comfort level that mitigates the anxiety.

The instructor needs to recognize the learner’s apprehension about performing the recovery techniques and help them gain the necessary skill level to feel comfortable with the maneuver. In this case, the instructor could take the procedure apart and demonstrate each stage of an impending or full stall. Allowing the learner to then practice the stages in various realistic scenarios should instill the confidence needed to master the stall recovery.

Aviation instructor
Figure 1. Several common defense mechanisms may apply to aviation learners

Sigmund Freud introduced the psychological concept of the ego defense mechanism in 1894. The ego defense mechanism is an unconscious mental process to protect oneself from anxiety, unpleasant emotions, or to provide a refuge from a situation with which the individual cannot currently cope. For example, someone who blots out the memory of being physically assaulted is using a defense mechanism. People use these defenses to prevent unacceptable ideas or impulses from entering the conscious mind. Defense mechanisms soften feelings of failure, alleviate feelings of guilt, help an individual cope with reality, and protect one’s self-image. [Figure 1]

When anxiety occurs, the mind tries to solve the problem or find an escape, but if these tactics do not work, defense mechanisms are triggered. Defense mechanisms share two common properties:
  • They often appear unconsciously.
  • They tend to distort, transform, or otherwise falsify reality.

Because reality is distorted, perception changes, which allows for a lessening of anxiety, with a corresponding reduction in tension. Repression and denial are two primary defense mechanisms.


Repression is the defense mechanism whereby a person places uncomfortable thoughts into inaccessible areas of the unconscious mind. Things a person is unable to cope with now are pushed away, to be dealt with at another time, or hopefully never because they faded away on their own accord. The level of repression can vary from temporarily forgetting an uncomfortable thought to amnesia, where the events that triggered the anxiety are deeply buried. Repressed memories do not disappear and may reappear in dreams or slips of the tongue (“Freudian slips”). For example, a learner pilot may have a repressed fear of flying that inhibits his or her ability to learn how to fly.


Denial is a refusal to accept external reality because it is too threatening. It is the refusal to acknowledge what has happened, is happening, or will happen. It is a form of repression through which stressful thoughts are banned from memory. Related to denial is minimization. When a person minimizes something, he or she accepts what happened, but in a diluted form.

For example, the instructor finds a water bottle under the rudder pedal of an aircraft the student took on a solo flight and explains the hazards of loose objects in the cabin. The learner, unwilling to accept the reality that his or her inattention could have caused an aircraft accident, denies having been inattentive on previous day. Or, the learner minimizes the incident, accepting he or she left the water bottle pointing out that nothing bad happened as a result of the action.

Other defense mechanisms include but are not limited to the following:


Compensation is a process of psychologically counterbalancing perceived weaknesses by emphasizing strength in other areas. Through compensation, learners often attempt to disguise the presence of a weak or undesirable quality by emphasizing a more positive one. The “I’m not a fighter, I’m a lover” philosophy can be an example of compensation. Compensation involves substituting success in a realm of life other than the realm in which the person suffers a weakness.


Through projection, an individual places his or her own unacceptable impulses onto someone else. A person relegates the blame for personal shortcomings, mistakes, and transgressions to others or attributes personal motives, desires, characteristics, and impulses to others. The learner pilot who fails a flight exam and says, “I failed because I had a poor examiner” believes the failure was not due to a lack of personal skill or knowledge. This learner projects blame onto an “unfair” examiner.

Learners who believe their instruction is inadequate, or that their efforts are not conscientiously considered and evaluated, do not learn well. In addition, their motivation suffers no matter how intent they are on learning to fly. Motivation also declines when a learner believes the instructor is making unreasonable demands for performance and progress. [Figure 2]

Defense Mechanisms
Figure 2. The assignment of impossible or unreasonable goals discourages the learner, diminishes effort, and retards the learning process

Assignment of difficult, but possible, goals usually provides a challenge and promotes learning. In a typical flight lesson, reasonable goals are listed in the lesson objectives and the desired levels of proficiency for the goals are included in statements that contain completion standards.


Rationalization is a subconscious technique for justifying actions that otherwise would be unacceptable. When true rationalization takes place, individuals sincerely believe in the plausible and acceptable excuses which seem real and justifiable. For example, a learner mechanic performs poorly on a test. He or she may justify the poor grade by claiming there was not enough time to learn the required information. The learner does not admit to failing to join the class study group or taking the computer quiz offered by the instructor.

Reaction Formation

In reaction formation a person fakes a belief opposite to the true belief because the true belief causes anxiety. The person feels an urge to do or say something and then actually does or says something that is the opposite of what he or she really wants. For example, a learner may develop a who-cares-how-other-people-feel attitude to cover up feelings of loneliness and a hunger for acceptance.


Fantasy occurs when a learner engages in daydreams about how things should be rather than doing anything about how things are. The learner uses his or her imagination to escape from reality into a fictitious world—a world of success or pleasure. However, if a learner gets sufficient satisfaction from daydreaming, he or she may stop trying to achieve goals altogether. Perhaps the transitioning pilot is having trouble mastering a more complex aircraft, which jeopardizes his or her dream of becoming an airline pilot. It becomes easier to daydream about the career than to achieve the certification. Lost in the fantasy, the learner spends more time dreaming about being a successful airline pilot than working toward the goal. When carried to extremes, the worlds of fantasy and reality can become so confused that the dreamer cannot distinguish one from the other.


This defense mechanism results in an unconscious shift of emotion, affect, or desire from the original object to a more acceptable, less threatening substitute. Displacement avoids the risk associated with feeling unpleasant emotions and puts them somewhere other than where they belong. For example, the avionics learner is angry with the instructor over a grade received but fears displaying the anger could antagonize the instructor. The learner might choose to direct the anger towards a different object without risking consequences related to the class.

Psychology textbooks or online references offer more in-depth information about defense mechanisms. While most defense mechanisms fall within the realm of normal behavior and serve a useful purpose, in some cases they may be associated with mental health problems. Defense mechanisms involve some degree of self-deception and distortion of reality. Thus, they alleviate the symptoms, not the causes, and do not solve problems. Moreover, because defense mechanisms operate on an unconscious level, they are not subject to normal conscious checks and balances. Once an individual realizes there is a conscious reliance on one of these devices, behavior ceases to be an unconscious adjustment mechanism and becomes, instead, an ineffective way of satisfying a need.

It may be difficult for an instructor to identify excessive reliance on defense mechanisms by a learner, but a personal crisis or other stressful event is usually the cause. For example, a death in the family, a divorce, or even a failing grade on an important test may trigger harmful defensive reactions. Physical symptoms such as a change in personality, angry outbursts, depression, or a general lack of interest may point to a problem. Drug or alcohol abuse also may become apparent. Less obvious indications may include social withdrawal, preoccupation with certain ideas, or an inability to concentrate.

An instructor needs to be familiar with typical defense mechanisms and have some knowledge of related behavioral problems. A perceptive instructor can help by using common sense and discussing the problem with the learner. The main objective should be to restore motivation and self-confidence. It should be noted that the human psyche is fragile and could be damaged by inept measures. Therefore, in severe cases involving the possibility of deep psychological problems, timely and skillful help is needed. In this event, the instructor should recommend that the learner use the services of a professional counselor.

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