The Concept of Repression Explained

Through repression, painful, threatening, or embarrassing memories are held out of consciousness. Freud (1901) considered that most, if not all, forgetting in everyday life happens because of repression.

Repression is a defense mechanism which protects the self from awareness of threatening or anxiety-evoking memories, such as past failures, upsetting childhood episodes, heartbreaking experiences, etc.

An example is provided by soldiers who have repressed some of the horrors they saw during combat.

People prone to repression tend to be extremely sensitive to emotional events. As a result, they use repression to protect themselves from threatening thoughts (McNally, Clancy, & Barrett, 2004).

The essence of repression lies in the function of rejecting some offending thoughts and keeping unpleasant memories inaccessible.

According to Freud, such memories become buried by the unconscious mind—forgotten, because it would be too threatening to the conscious mind if they were remembered.

Freud considered that repression was really the key to all forgetting Opens in new window. His idea was that even though something that we have forgotten might seem perfectly innocuous, it could, through a chain of associated ideas, lead to a traumatic memory.

Because the unconscious mind is aware of the possible link, we forget the information, so it is protected from the threat.

Bower (1981) asked people to keep a diary for a week, taking particular note of all the things that happened which they experienced as either emotionally pleasant or emotionally unpleasant.

At the end of the week, the research participants were hypnotized, and put into either a pleasant or an unpleasant mood. Then they were asked to remember what they had written in their diaries during the previous week.

If they were in a pleasant mood, the research participants remembered mostly pleasant events, but those who were in an unpleasant mood tended to remember only the events which had been unpleasant. It is as if the mood we are in sets up a kind of mental set, so that we remember things that fit with it and forget things that do not.

Although Bower’s study could be taken as partly supporting Freud, it is not really a psychoanalytic kind of repression. But that kind of repression is very difficult to study, and there is not much clear experimental evidence for it.

Certainly, our emotions do seem to affect memory—emotional experiences ‘stand out’ in memory, whether they involve pleasant or unpleasant memories—but that is not really the same thing. It seems that we tend more time thinking over emotional events anyway, and so the memories become ‘practiced’. Also, we probably pay more attention to emotional events as they happen than we do to neutral ones, which would help us to remember them.

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