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Defense Mechanisms of Homophobic Adolescent Males July 26, 2009

Posted by Geekgirl in homophobia, psychology, social.
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Brief report: The defense mechanisms of homophobic adolescent males: A descriptive discriminant analysis.
Dr. Andrew J. Lewis and Dr. Jennifer White
School of Psychology, Deakin University, Victoria, Australia
Journal of Adolescence Volume 32 (2009) pg. 435-441.

We all know that gay teens are exposed to, and are damaged by, bullying. What makes teenagers bully others? In particular, why bully gay teens? Researchers Dr. Andrew Lewis and Jennifer White in the Psychology Department at Deakin University in Victoria, Australia, wanted to know if, by using standardized tests designed to measure defence mechanisms, could they identify the most significant predictors of homophobia?

I came across a brief report of this research online and then I contacted Dr. Lewis. He was kind enough to respond to me with a full version of the research report. I’m not allowed to reprint it due to copyright limitations, however, I will try to summarize the highlights – hopefully correctly and in words that we can all understand. You might also note that my computer has decided that Australian English was the way to go.

You might be asking yourself, what is the value in this research? It sounds like something where we already know the answer. The value is in finding out why teenagers do this. If we know why, then educational interventions can be designed to reduce bullying. I posted a similar blog recently where the researchers used a classroom exercise known as Alien Nation to reduce prejudice. Dr. Lewis was also kind enough to let me know that a member of his group is now working on a research study to design and test effective interventions. In other words, can we find a way to reduce homophobia and bullying?

Before diving into the study, I would like to take a few quotes from the introduction to this paper.

What is the damage to teens that experience bullying?

Harassment of same sex attracted young people has been shown to contribute to lack of sleep, loss of appetite, isolation, nervousness, being upset or angry, elevated rates of actual and attempted suicide and self-harm, absenteeism, truancy and limited achievement at school (Fineran, 2002). Griffin (1994) reported that one third of completed youth suicides in Australia are youth struggling with issues of sexual orientation.

What is homophobia? It turns out that psychologists have used a wide variety of definitions ranging from anxiety to discrimination. After a review of many definitions, the Australian researchers settled on this definition.

In this study we define homophobia as consisting three overlapping components:

  1. A cognitive dimension consisting of negative ideas regarding homosexuality.
  2. A behavioural dimension consisting of avoidance of homosexual individuals accompanied by negative affective responses to homosexuality.
  3. An aggressive dimension consisting of aggressive acts toward homosexual individuals accompanied by negative affects.

What are defence mechanisms?

Defences are largely unconscious. They operate by distorting information in a manner that makes it more palatable and in this manner defences regulate negative emotions or experiences. Defences can be adaptive or pathogenic and fall into three basic categories:

Mature

These individuals will suppress their defensive feelings, they may use humor and they may anticipate a defensive reaction, thus allowing them to have more control over their reactions.

Neurotic

These behaviours include undoing, pseudo-altruism, idealisation and reaction formation. Yes, I had to look up some of these too. Since the only behaviour that had an impact was idealisation, I’ll provide the definition here. “ A process of attributing overly positive qualities to another person”. I’ll let you look up any others that interest you.

Immature

These behaviours include a long list: Projection, passive-aggressive, acting out, isolation, devaluation, autistic-fantasy, denial, displacement, dissociation, splitting, rationalisation and somatisation.

Time for another definition. Somatisation is when anxiety is so strong, it leads to physical symptoms.

So what did the researchers want to know? They asked three questions:

  1. Are aggressive modes of homophobia associate with immature styles of defences and which ones?
  2. Are high levels of homophobia correlated with immature defence styles?
  3. Which specific defence styles predict being highly homophobic?

A total of 84 male students aged 17-18 participated in the study. The students took two questionnaires. The first, a questionnaire rating their homophobia. They were classified into one of two groups, homophobic or non-homophobic. Then they took a questionnaire regarding defence mechanisms.

So what were the results?

Generally speaking our predictions were confirmed in the study. The data showed that students were correctly classified as homophobic or non-homophobic 75.9% of the time. The strongest predictors of homophobia were idealisation, denial, somatisation and devaluation, accounting for 18.31%, 17.64%, 13.10% and 11.35% respectively.

Results that fit the prediction:

Our predicted relationship between aggressive modes of homophobia and immature styles of defence was strongly born out by the results.

The second prediction that high levels of homophobic attitudes would correlate with more immature defence styles proved to be true for behavioural and aggressive homophobic being significantly correlated with immature defences while not holding for cognitive homophobia.

The majority of defences that contributed to the prediction of membership of the high homophobia group were immature defences, specifically denial, somatisation and devaluation.  This provides an important insight into the psychology of the adolescent homophobe who finds the acceptance of homosexuality to be so deeply threatening that the very idea of it must be radically negated at a psychological level. In such a state of immature defensiveness, recourse to a violent enactment of the denial of homophobia is rendered more probable.

Results that did not fit the prediction

Exceptions to the predicted relationship between defences and homophobia also call for comment. Amongst the neurotic defences, idealisation was found to be a significant predictor of high homophobia. This is an interesting result which was not predicted. [Emphasis added] It suggests that those adolescents who perhaps have idealised notions of masculinity, and therefore perhaps more rigid ones, also struggle to accept homosexuality.

The lack of correlation between cognitive homophobia and immature defences does go against predictions. This is perhaps best considered in the context of the clear hierarchy in the severity of homophobia from an ideational to a behavioural and finally aggressive level. Another way of putting this result is that those who have homophobic thoughts are not strongly influences by defences but those who enable these thoughts to lead onto active avoidance of those perceived to be homosexual or violent enactment of homophobia are indeed likely to be acting upon immature defences.

The authors end on the note acknowledging that this is a small study with respect to the number of subjects, yet the findings are helpful and pave the way for a better understanding of homophobia and the importance of reducing bullying of gay teens.

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