Reaction Formation: A Love/Hate Relationship

By Brian Gendron, Ph.D.
Published June 14, 2016

On June 12, 2016, one of all too many shooting massacres occurred. This was the one in Orlando, Florida, targeting the LGBT community in the midst of a gay pride celebration, nonetheless. The shooter claimed allegiance to various terrorist organizations prior to the event. However, it appears he may have had the strongest allegiance to other men.

According to reports, the shooter had, for many years, visited the same gay nightclub he attacked, in addition to having used “multiple gay dating apps.”

Sigmund Freud might argue that this is a clear case of ‘reaction formation,’ a psychological defense mechanism where attitudes and behaviors perceived to be unacceptable are masked by an exaggerated form of opposite impulses. If someone felt homosexual, but was raised in an un-accepting environment, they might engage in ego-protecting behaviors. Conscious or subconscious, as Freud might argue, and even including blatant acts of homophobia.

Decades since Freud proposed his theory, scientists have acquired some compelling supportive evidence.

In one 1996 study, a group of men ranging in age from 18 to 31 years old were categorized as homophobic or nonhomophobic, using a survey known as the internalized homophobia scale. Next, these men were exposed to three different types of pornography, a) heterosexual male and female, b) homosexual female and female, or c) homosexual male and male.

In order to measure arousal, researchers first attached each man’s penis to a circumference-measuring erection inspection device.

The results? All of the men became more aroused when watching the heterosexual and female homosexual porn, which isn’t really surprising. But, only the homophobic individuals became aroused by the dude-on-dude porn! This implies that a “homophobic individual is either unaware of or denies” his own sexuality. Point for Freud! The researchers also measured aggression, but no differences emerged between the two groups of men. Thus, the Orlando, Florida shooter may have been gay and engaging in ‘reaction formation.’ Honestly, we may never know, and the violence may best be explained using other perspectives (for example, disorders such as schizophrenia).

Scientists have recently used fancier, non-penis-measuring techniques to add further evidence in favor of the reaction formation theory, and the results appear to be conclusive. When internal feelings do not match external expectations, we may engage in tricky thoughts and behaviors aimed at reducing unwanted storms of internal strife.

And so, the moral here must be to live and let live. We’re all one. Peace and love.


Details of the boner-measuring apparatus.


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About the Author

has a Ph.D. in Psychology and enjoys writing in the third person.

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