Is Repressive Coping Associated with Suppression?

By Szentagotai, Aurora; Onea, Diana | Journal of Evidence-Based Psychotherapies, September 2007 | Go to article overview

Is Repressive Coping Associated with Suppression?


Szentagotai, Aurora, Onea, Diana, Journal of Evidence-Based Psychotherapies


Abstract

The purpose of the current study was to investigate the relationship between repressive coping and the use of suppression as a mental control strategy. Participants completed the State and Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI), and the Marlow-Crown Social Desirability Scale (Marlow-Crown) as a means of assessing repressive coping and the White Bear Suppression Inventory as a means of assessing suppression. Our results indicate a positive association between repressive coping and thought suppression as a strategy of managing unwanted thoughts and emotions. Clinical implications are discussed.

Key words: repression, suppression, repressive coping.

SUPPRESSION VERSUS REPRESSION

Although traditionally associated with Freud, the term and the concept of "repression" was introduced into psychology before the development of psychoanalysis, by Johann Herbart (1824-1825) (Herbart, 1816/1891), to designate the [nondefensive] inhibition of ideas by other ideas (Erdelyi, 2006). Herbart applied repression to the classic problem of the limited span of consciousness: ideas compete for entry into consciousness and the stronger or dominant ideas inhibit, that is, repress, weaker ideas, which are not destroyed, but remain in a "state of tendency" (Erdelyi, 1993).

The concept was popularized by Freud however, who noted that the purpose of repression was a defensive one. It was his claim that when ideas or memories produce anxiety, the individual tends to repress the material from consciousness, to get rid of the intolerable affect that they produce (Freud, 1915/1957). In Freud's work, repression captured several forms of motivated unawareness, both intentional and unintentional, with forgetting and without it (Wegner, 1992). In his paper on repression, he notes that its essence "lies simply in the function of rejecting and keeping something out of consciousness" (1915/1957, p.147). The fact that Freud did not clearly define the nature of repression (i.e. conscious vs. unconscious, intentional vs. unintentional), and that he used the terms "repression" and "suppression" interchangeably, has resulted in later research using the term in a highly diverse and almost contradictory manner (e.g., conscious process, unconscious process, specific defense, class of related defenses, defense mechanism, coping style etc.) (Myers, Vetere, & Derakshan, 2004). However, Freud's focus on examples that entail unconsciously motivated, unintentional memory loss is probably the reason why, in current use, repression is frequently employed as a term for unintentional, unconscious forgetting, despite some notable attempts to reconsider this view (see Erdelyi, 1993; 2006). Although over the past century, many experimental studies have addressed these hypothesized characteristics of repression, none of the succeeded in finding solid evidence for the existence of repression as an entirely automatic phenomenon (Geraerts, Merckelbach, Jelicic, & Smeets, 2006; Holmes, 1990).

Suppression, on the other hand is considered a conscious process (Myers et al., 2002). For example, DSM-IV defines suppression as a "defense mechanism in which a person intentionally avoids thinking about disturbing problems, desires, feelings or experiences" (DSM-IV, 1994, pp.756-777). Although researchers have differing views and definitions of suppression, there is a general agreement that it is a conscious process.

During the past decade, the study of suppression as a mental control strategy has been mainly based on the work of Daniel Wegner (and his colleagues), who defines suppression as a motivated attempt not to think of a particular thing/ thought (David & Brown, 2002; Wegner, Schneider, Carter, & White, 1987).

Experimental data shows that humans do have a certain degree of control over their minds, and that suppression is sometimes a viable control strategy (Abramowitz, Tolin, & Street, 2001). However, this does not make it an easy one (Wegner, 1994a) and research on thought suppression has indeed documented frequent failures.

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