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Reaction formation is a psychological term coined by the American criminologist Albert K. Cohen to describe a theory of Sigmund Freud's. The term refers to a defense mechanism employed by people with deeply held thoughts and beliefs that they consider to be socially unacceptable.
The reaction formation manifests itself as deliberate and obvious actions running exactly counter to their true feelings, perhaps as a form of overcompensation.
The behavior may also be seen among people who believe themselves to be inferior in some way,[note 1] and are atoning for the perceived inferiority. Cohen in fact coined the term to describe just this sort of case, illustrating his belief that gang members committed crimes as a consequence of their perceptions of social inferiority.
Also, people who believe in ostracizing some group but are personally acquainted with one or more members of that group might act against the group collectively but not against individuals within it; examples include adherents to the doctrine of "hate the sin, love the sinner," as well as misogynists who are devoted to their wives, as in the case of the Scottish church reformer, John Knox.
In most cases, a person with reaction formation makes every effort to keep their true feelings hidden for fear of being labeled a hypocrite. However, some don't care how their actions make them look for whatever reason; one such reason may be because their fundamentalist beliefs require them to act a certain way no matter what.
Examples of reaction formation
- A closeted gay person who, outwardly, is a rampant homophobe.[note 2]
- Someone who condemns racism, but also acts racist.
- A gay person who marries a partner of the opposite gender in an effort to prove, whether to others or to themselves, that they are straight.[note 3]
- A person who claims “First Amendment” while blocking others from assembling or speaking.
- A feminist who claims to support women's and gay rights while doing nothing to help them.
- A serial philanderer and occasional murderer of women who condemns others as sexists.
- A parent who dotes on a child they secretly hate.
- A homophobic parent of a gay child.
- A philanderer who chastises other promiscuous people.
- An addict who favors strict punishment for all substance abusers.
Notable people who have exhibited reaction formation
- Recovering oxycontin addict Rush Limbaugh, who disdained medicinal marijuana initiatives and advocated severe punishments for addicts on his radio show;
- The Reverend Ted Haggard, who preached from first-hand experience against homosexuality;
- Former Congressman Mark Foley (R-Fla), who liked young boys so much, he helped pass laws against sexual abuse of minors;
- Senator David Vitter (R-La), who campaigned against Bill Clinton's philandering perhaps because Clinton got it for free with a girl he'd known for more than five minutes.
- House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who called on his own experience cheating on his wife while in one of the top political offices in the nation to decry Clinton's infidelity.
- Senator Larry Craig (R-Id), who opposed all gay rights legislation only to be busted for playing footsie with an undercover cop at the Minneapolis airport.
- Joseph Stalin, who was an ethnic Georgian but believed Russians to be superior to Georgians, in consequence of which he became a very enthusiastic supporter of Russian culture.
- Jim Bakker when he chastises Jimmy Swaggart.
- Hillary Clinton, who claims to support the rights of women and LGBT people, took money from Saudi Arabia, where women are treated as property and homosexuality carries the death penalty.
It is quite possible that Fred Phelps might also have exhibited reaction formation in his deranged hatred of gays.
- For instance, those who engage in internalized discrimination.
- In many such cases, the homophobia is genuine, and since people can't actually choose their sexual orientation, likely a source of great stress that leads to lashing out. It'd be sad if it wasn't so disgusting and destructive.
- Note that some gay people may marry a close friend of the opposite gender for love or legal reasons, such as adopting a child, without denying or ceasing practise of their preferred sexuality. This is also not critical of the lavender marriage, which is an attempt to sidestep the effects of other people's homophobia.
- Albert K. Cohen faculty page, Florida State University
- "Reaction Formation" Changing Minds website 
- Stoned Rush Limbaugh Makes Hypocritical History By Demanding Harsh Penalties For Other Drug Users