The evolutionary functions of repression and the ego defenses

R. M. Nesse

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52 Scopus citations


Recent advances in basic evolutionary biology have transformed ethology, but have had little impact on psychoanalysis. As evolutionary approaches to human behavior begin to focus on the specific behavior regulation mechanisms that have been shaped by natural selection, psychodynamic mechanisms become natural objects of inquiry. The capacity for repression is at the core of psychodynamics, and must be explained first. It is a first-class evolutionary mystery because it distorts reality, it contributes to maladaptation, and because existing explanations have been outmoded by advances in evolutionary theory. The evolutionary biologists Trivers and Alexander have each proposed that repression conceals motives from the self, and thus better conceals them from others so that selfish motives can be covertly pursued. This startling idea becomes plausible when viewed in the light of modern studies of animal relationships and communication. Several other functions of repression also enhance fitness by deceiving the self to better deceive others, but repression may function more generally by distorting reality whenever accurate perception would be maladaptive. Although repression sometimes assists short-term strategies of manipulation (cheating), it more often assists long-term strategies that depend on maintenance of secure relationships. This position is largely consistent with existing psychoanalytic theory. The specific ego defenses can be understood as specialized capacities for deceiving others. The ubiquity of intrapsychic conflict between id wishes and superego/ego inhibitions may have been shaped by the constant choices that must be made between selfish strategies that offer a short-term benefit with a long-term social cost, versus altruistic strategies that exact a short-term cost but offer the possibility of a long-term reciprocity benefit. Other psychodynamic characteristics of the mind, oedipal wishes, castration anxiety, transference, and so forth, also require evolutionary explanations. In the process of the search for them, psychoanalysis may find the foundation in basic biology that it has long sought, and evolutionary biology may find that some of the evolved mechanisms that regulate human behavior have already been carefully studied by psychoanalysis.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)260-285
Number of pages26
JournalJournal of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis
Issue number2
StatePublished - 1990

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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