displacement, projection, and objects in public life
Here at First Person Politics, we talk a lot about projection and displacement because they are the fundamental psychological forces that motivate interest in politics in the first place. So we thought we’d take this opportunity to clarify just what these things are and how they work.
Projection and displacement are psychological defense mechanisms: tricks our own psyches play on us to help alleviate anxiety and discomfort. Both mechanisms involve the misdirecting of our anxieties, aggressive and sexual impulses, and other discomforting emotions onto objects outside of ourselves to reduce psychological tension. To understand the difference between projection and displacement, it is helpful to momentarily divide the world into subjects and objects. Projection is when the subject changes. Displacement is when the object changes. The following example should illustrate the difference.
Imagine a scenario where you get yelled at by your boss. As a result, you feel angry, victimized, and dis-empowered. You wish you could have yelled back, but for various reasons you couldn’t. Displacement would be going home and in a moment of minor irritation snapping at your cat or your spouse. You’re actually angry at your boss, but since you cannot express that emotion towards him or her, you express it towards a less threatening target. That’s displacement. Projection would be going home and telling your spouse how angry your cat is at your boss OR retelling the story of what happened as an instance of your boss failing to stand up to the CEO. When projection occurs, the feeling itself is so threatening that it must be removed from the self and transferred into another being.
Outside of small tribal societies, displacement and projection are the fundamental unconscious mechanisms that drive interest, involvement, and opinion in public life. To be clear, these defense mechanisms do not inform the content of that interest, involvement, and opinion, but merely its existence in the first place. (The content is a subject we will return to soon.)
In the early 1930s, political theorist Harold Lasswell developed a formula to describe how displacement and projection produce homo politicus, the political man or the power-hungry man. Lasswell’s terminology may be a bit narrowly conceived for our modern understanding, but his formula has proved of lasting value. It is as close as there is to a fundamental principle of political psychology.
Before we introduce the formula, let’s get the terminological issues out of the way because addressing them upfront will greatly expand the utility of the formula. One glaring problem with the term “political man” or “power-hungry man” is the obvious gender bias. When Lasswell developed the formula and produced evidence for it, he was clearly conceiving of a political world dominated by men. Today there are countless women and even transgendered people interested in, participating in, and opinionated about politics. If we find differences across gender, political psychology must be able to account for them; but if we do not, we should be expected to use gender-neutral or at least gender-balanced language.
Our second terminological objection is with the meaning of the word “political.” It is clear from Lasswell’s work that he held a relatively narrow conception of politics, at least by today’s standards. For Lasswell, politics was confined to the inhabitants of public office — elected, appointed, or administrative — and to the activities necessary to obtain and continue occupying those offices. While this view of politics was appropriate in the early-to-mid 20th Century, a great deal has changed since then.
Politics now includes activists, campaigns, and campaign staff, a sprawling community of lobbyists, interests, and advocacy groups, entire armies of consultants, policy shops, and contractors, as well as millions of movements, non-profits, businesses, and institutions across the country whose activities sometimes intersect the political system. And this is to say nothing about changes in the media, international affairs, or the size and scope of government itself. Indeed, a modern understanding of power would suggest that power relations exist virtually anywhere you can find people. At first glance, these changes might seem to render Lasswell’s theories about politics hopelessly anachronistic.
Here at First Person Politics, we plead ignorance on the question of where to draw the line between what constitutes the political and what does not. If we frequently use terms likecivil society, public affairs, and national life to characterize the domain of our activities — rather than the more traditional politics and government — it is to call attention to this much broader conception of social change and political activities. Lasswell’s original formula was reserved for politicians and public servants, but we have discovered that it applies to ANYONE invested in a conception of the public interest.
We will delimit our revision to Lasswell’s formula only by noting that it applies exclusively to individual people. Groups, movements, institutions, and communities are in countless ways subject to the formula’s consequences, but are not themselves first order agents of the process to which it refers. Politics, however broadly or narrowly we define it, begins and ends with individual human beings.
In light of this discussion, we would like to introduce our update to Lasswell’s formula, which describes the psychological process leading to interest and action in the realm of public affairs:’
An advocate is a person whose private motives are displaced and projected onto public objects and then rationalized in terms of the public interest.
Here’s what this means. People experience all kinds of emotions, desires, and impulses — many of them left over from childhood — that cannot be expressed or satisfied in their personal lives. Often the reason this material cannot be expressed is because it has been repressed through socialization (e.g. issues with one’s parents and siblings), because it is aimed at a potentially problematic target (e.g. a romantic partner or a workplace authority figure), or because the target is no longer available (e.g. a deceased relative or an absent friend).
Just because a powerful impulse cannot be expressed does not make that impulse go away. Keeping it bottled up in the psyche (repression) is one way of dealing with it. But eventually this to begins to have a cost in terms of greater anxiety and infra-psychic tension. Where can this material go? Often it gets displaced and projected. Now, objects in public life aren’t the only receptacles for displaced and projected content, but they are among the most convenient. What makes them so convenient is that they are distant, ambiguous, and normative.
Let’s start with distance. Distance makes politics an extremely convenient target, especially for aggressive impulses, because it is a target that will almost never target you back. You can say nearly anything you want about politicians, pundits, parties, and issues without ever having to worry that they’ll reciprocate and harm you. Distance reduces the perceived risk associated with expression, making nearly-always-distant public objects a safe target for displaced and projected content. Obviously, distance decreases the more directly a person gets in involved in public affairs. But this greatly reduced distance from public objects is the reason there is a powerful psychological impulse for activists and leaders to exercise additional caution the higher they rise. Reduced distance raises the stakes.
Next, let’s address ambiguity. Public objects are inherently ambiguous. A flag is just a piece of colored cloth until someone decides it means something more than that. A woman is just another woman until we decide she’s the leader of the free world. A nation, as we discussed in a previous post, is just an imagined community. What a person thinks, feels, and believes about an object, symbol, issue, or public figure may bear some relation to what is actually there in reality — but this need not be the case. Ambiguity simply means that we can attach whatever meanings and interpretations we wish to objects in public life — and that shared, public meanings are nothing more than personal, private meanings held in common by many individuals. The fact that public objects are ambiguous makes them ideal targets for displaced and projected content.
The third factor that makes public life such a convenient receptacle for displaced and projected content is that it is normative. Normative actually means two things. It means that expressing moral concern for the well-being of the community is looked upon favorably. It is NOT generally normative, for instance, to express grave moral concern about the color of people’s skin, the height of the trees in Michigan, or the luminosity of interstellar objects. And though we may form private and unconscious moral judgements about these things, most people try to avoid expressing them most of the time. On the other hand, we admire and respect people who show concern for others and for the community, making public affairs an ideal receptacle for projected and displaced content.
It should be noted that authoritarian and totalitarian regimes come to power and sustain their power by subtracting the distant, ambiguous, and normative qualities that otherwise make public life such a convenient receptacle for psychological material. Authoritarian regimes subtract ambiguity by fixing the meanings of public symbols and established authorities. Furthermore, they render expression of private moral concerns counter-normative by removing distance. In other words, if you project and displace material that in any way subverts an established meaning or authority, your target will immediately and punitively target you back.
In nearly all societies, however, there is generally a strong moral aversion to these coercive tactics as well as to the pursuit of naked self-interest in the public realm. Even monarchs and dictators must justify their actions in the name of the people or the state. Whether it’s the psyche’s way of disguising our private motives or it’s strategy for accommodating the normative demands of public life or both, psychological material that gets displaced and projected onto public objects will invariably be rationalized in terms of the public interest.
Take the idea of leadership itself as an example. Though Quentin may desire that others submit to his will, his desire alone will never produce a cadre of followers. He must come up with a reason beyond the mere fact of his desire that it is good for others to follow him. Public life provides an abundance of potential reasons, a veritable plethora of rationalizations for the psyche to embrace. Which among those the psyche will ultimately embrace depends on other factors (which we will cover in a future post). But thanks to decades of experimental psychology research, we now know that it will be the psyche — rather than conscious reason — in charge of that decision. The psyche is the master of reason, not the other way around. Reason — the capacity to rationalize — is a tool that allows us to fulfill our unmet psychological needs.
To be an advocate is to find private meaning in public objects and to demand something from those objects couched in terms of what is good for the community. To be clear, not all people find meaning in public life. Someone who expresses a fleeting, soon-forgotten wish for social change or a different president is not an advocate. A certain minimal degree of fixation on public life is required. Our definition does not necessarily exclude those who demand something from the community to serve their private interests, but it limits advocates to those who define their private interests as an expression of a greater public good. Rationalization in terms of the public interest is the telltale sign that private motives are being displaced and projected onto public objects.
The notion that most of public life is displaced, projected, and rationalized psychological material — and that so much of politics happens in our heads — makes many people extremely uncomfortable. We are NOT suggesting that public life is some kind of relativistic hallucination, that politics is nothing more than psychodrama, or that there is anything wrong with people who participate in it. Quite the contrary, it might not even be possible for human beings to exist in large, complex societies without the ability to project and displace our emotions onto public objects. Psychologists have long understood that public life functions as a kind of release and escape valve for intense intra-psychic pressures.
Our aim in covering this material is to help you see that there is a strong link between what is going on inside your head and what appears to be occurring in the outside world. Indeed, this link is far more robust than you may be accustomed to acknowledging. When you observe or participate in political events, most of what you are experiencing is your own interpretation of it.
When we think and talk about Social Security, the House Natural Resources Committee, or compassionate conservatism, we are almost never experiencing those things directly or in whole. Instead, we are dealing with our own mental representations of them and the meanings we assign to them. Depending on other psychological and circumstantial factors, what you see and believe may be closely related to what is actually there or it may not be. Either way, those representations and meanings are the province of psychology, and the mere fact of your sustained attention to public life is evidence that Lasswell’s formula has been working its magic through you.