The Repressive Coping Style

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Another topic that deserves inclusion in any chapter on happiness concerns the question of individuals who maintain their self-esteem or happiness by denying the existence of negative material in their lives. Although usual analyses of this so-called "repressive coping style" (e.g., Derakshan, Eysenck, & Myers, 2007) would conceptualise it as the avoidance of anxiety, it is equally feasible to consider the motivation to be the maintenance of a state of positive affect, though at a price; thus, it is an as yet unanswered empirical question as to whether repressive coping only relates to anxiety avoidance or whether other aversive emotions such as anger and disgust might also be avoided.

The term verdrängt (repressed) is forever associated with the work of Freud and was first employed by him in Studies on Hysteria (Breuer & Freud, 1895). From this point on, Freud's use of the term repression was varied and sometimes contradictory (Power & Brewin, 1991). The consensus of opinion is that Freud's conceptualisation of repression varied throughout his writings from a narrow view of a single defence mechanism to a broader definition of many types of defence mechanism (Erdelyi, 2006). As Singer and Sincoff (1990), in their own chapter in the excellent edited book Repression and Dissociation: Implications for Personality Theory, Psycho-pathology and Health, have stated:

Freud began by describing repression as motivated forgetting, as an intentional failure to access information stored in memory. As his theory of the defences developed, the concept of repression absorbed these developments and began to represent defence mechanisms in general rather than forgetting in particular . . . Repression eventually came to denote the systematic avoidance, through any variety of mechanisms, of potentially threatening material in thought or social experience. (p. 474)

This confusion as to the exact meaning of the term repression in Freud's writings is compounded by Freud's refusal to be explicit about whether repression is an unconscious or a conscious psychological process. Indeed, Freud used terms such as suppression (a conscious process) and repression (either a conscious or an unconscious process) interchangeably throughout his career (see Erdelyi, 1990, 2006). Despite these sources of confusion, it is clear that by using the term repression Freud was broadly referring to psychological processes involved in keeping disturbing material at a distance from the conscious; for example, "the motive and purpose of repression was nothing else than the avoidance of unpleasure . . . If a repression does not succeed in preventing feelings of unpleasure or anxiety from arising, we may say that it has failed" (Freud, 1915, p. 153).

More recently, there have been numerous attempts to operationalise the concept of repression and to treat it as an individual difference variable. Furthermore, a number of self-report and questionnaire measures have been developed to measure an individual's tendency to employ a so-called repressive coping style. The basic premise behind most of these scales (e.g., the Byrne Repression-Sensitization Scale, Byrne 1964; Weinberger Adjustment Inventory [WAI], Weinberger, Schwartz, & Davidson, 1979) has been to conceptualise individuals as high in repressive coping style if they show elevated scores on a measure of social desirability and low scores on a measure of anxiety. There is considerable debate in the literature about the relative merits and intercorrelations of the different scales; for example, Weinberger et al. (1979) argued that the Byrne Repression-Sensitization Scale does not discriminate between truly low-anxious individuals and repressors. However, Turvey and Salovey (1994) compared six common measures of repression and found that all of them were highly intercorrelated and, furthermore, all loaded on a single factor. This psychometric literature is reviewed in detail by Myers (2000).

This definition of repression as a function of the pattern of scores obtained from self-report measures of anxiety and defensiveness (social desirability) suggests that, for some individuals at least, a sense of happiness and high self-esteem may be maintained through the denial and defence of distressing information. Furthermore, it suggests that these individuals are likely to differ in a number of ways from individuals who are happy without seeking to deny the existence of distressing information. In this section we will review selectively some of the research that has looked at the type of information that repressors might deny, the type of emotions that repressors report experiencing, the information-processing research using repressors and controls, and finally we will attempt to conceptualise the concept of repression within the SPAARS framework.

Weinberger et al. (1979) have suggested a fourfold classification of individuals with respect to their scores on measures of anxiety and defensiveness: low anxious (low anxiety - low defensiveness); repressor (low anxiety - high defensiveness); high anxious (high anxiety - low defensiveness); and defensive high anxious (high anxiety

- high defensiveness). Initial attempts at a validation of this system indicated that repressors reported the lowest level of subjective distress, even though a variety of physiological measures (heart rate, spontaneous skin resistance, and forehead muscle tension) and behavioural measures (reaction times, content avoidance, verbal interference) revealed that they were more stressed than the low-anxious group. Weinberger et al. concluded that repressors employ a coping style that involves "an avoidance of disturbing cognitions . . . supported by . . . denial of cognitive (relative to somatic) anxiety and . . . decreased trait anxiety following a stressful experiment . . . [the] repressors claim of having less trait anxiety than the lowest group is contradicted by three measures of their behaviour for three of their physiology" (p. 378). These findings have been replicated in a number of studies including Derakshan and Eysenck (2001), Gudjonsson (1981), Asendorpf and Scherer (1983), Schwartz (1990), and Newton and Contrada (1992).

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