In a projection, a person attributes certain aspects of him or herself to others. The process is closely tied to identification in the psychology of personality. A disowning projection involves attributing negative aspects of the self to others, such as “selfish motives, evil intent . . . [or] stupid attitudes” (Cameron 1947). Cameron includes the exclusion of those characteristics from the self as part of that projection (hence the disowning portion of the name). Theoretically, a disowning projection should be contrasted with an assimilative projection, in which a person similarly projects his or her own qualities onto others. Although both are projections, the content and effects of the projections are quite different. When negative characteristics are projected, the person who is projecting disassociates him or herself from the characteristics. When positive characteristics are projected, no such disassociation occurs. Instead, the person who is projecting maintains the view of him or herself as being described by these characteristics, and, after projecting them onto others, sees him or herself as similar to those others.
When facing a group of people who have been brought together for a particular purpose, such as a political meeting, a person may assume they are very different from him or herself, and so react very negatively to the group (a disowning projection), or see them as sharing certain positive characteristics, and so affiliate with the group (an assimilative projection). Cameron (1947) describes mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and paranoia in terms of a chronic disowning projection – with these mental patients reacting to their own behavior as if it were the behavior of others.
It is most likely that we all engage in both disowning and assimilative projections at one time or another. Despite the general nature of the phenomenon, the term has found little use in the literature. In the field of communication research, O’Gorman and Garry (1976) suggested that respondents to their survey projected their own ideas about racial segregation on to the general public. Glynn et al. (2004) suggest that the phenomenon may apply to the general public, and that the disowning projection may in fact be recognized and studied quite often under the label of social desirability. In these researchers’ view, in a controversial social issue, respondents may often give what they believe to be a socially acceptable answer, but, when asked about what others may think, those same respondents may provide an answer that reflects a projection of their own view onto the general public.
Although this is an interesting hypothesis, it has not been rigorously tested in the literature. In the psychological view of projection, the “disowning” portion is a real aspect of the phenomenon. Much of the social desirability literature points to a recognition among respondents as to what their own opinion actually is, and that it is one that is not socially acceptable, hence suggesting that this is the majority viewpoint, or the view of the average person provides a method for providing one’s own opinion without feeling social disapproval from the researcher who asks the question. As such, a social desirability phenomenon is a very rational method of expressing a deviant opinion; a disowning projection should reflect something less rational and voluntary. This suggests that further work on a test of the link between social desirability and the disowning projection needs to focus on awareness and ownership of one’s own opinion to establish whether social desirability responses are rational forms of communication or reflect some sort of defense mechanism in which one’s opinions are actually detached from one’s self.
- Cameron, N. (1947). The psychology of behavior disorders: A biosocial interpretation. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.
- Glynn, C. J., Herbst, S., O’Keefe, G. J., Shapiro, R.Y., & Lindeman, M. (2004). Public opinion. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
- O’Gorman, H., & Garry, S. L. (1976). Pluralistic ignorance: A replication and extension. Public Opinion Quarterly, 40, 449 – 458.