This is the real reason people get so defensive

We’re all naturally inclined to be our own biggest fan. No one particularly wants to hear that they’ve done a bad job on a project, made a critical mistake, or wronged someone else – regardless of whether or not it’s true. However, sometimes people tend to get really defensive when confronted with an error.

Why does this happen? Researchers at Flinders University have found that while defensiveness to some degree is universal and to be expected, obstinate defensiveness can be worsened and exacerbated if the individual in question feels like he or she is being turned into an outcast or pariah.

Ultimately, it all comes down to humanity’s unflinching need to be accepted socially and belong. Whether it’s at the office among co-workers or a holiday party surrounded by childhood friends if someone feels like they’re being ostracized by the group they’re going to become extra defensive. Conversely, people act much less defensive if they feel socially secure.

As far as how this defensiveness manifests itself, the human mind employs several psychological defensive measures that serve to “protect” us from the realities of our mistakes.

Examples of these neurological defense tactics include misremembering what happened, disregarding important aspects of an event, deflecting blame to others, claiming barely any harm was done, and flat-out “disengaging entirely” from the situation. 

All of these defensive tricks can certainly help an individual feel better about themselves, but they also hinder any real progress or solutions. If a member of a team or office is defensive about all of his/her mistakes, chances are it’s going to be very hard for that group to build cohesion and come to any meaningful solutions.

Therein lies the issue with defensiveness researchers wanted to address. Defensive behaviors routinely stand in the way of innovation, logical decision-making, identifying problems, and formulating solutions.

So, let’s say you feel the need to confront a coworker about a series of mistakes he keeps making on the job. You know it could quickly become a hostile, unproductive conversation, but at the same time, something must be done. What’s the best way to do that while minimizing defensive pushback?

According to the research team, it’s all about walking that thin line between addressing the problem/mistake and assuring the other person they’re still a valued member of the group or community.

“This research shows that defensiveness is strengthened by negative social responses, but is reduced when people feel secure in their group identity, respected and valued,” says study co-author Associate Professor Lydia Woodyatt in a release.

“Based on our research over the past several years, our recommendations for reducing defensiveness when dealing with someone who may have done something wrong is to emphasise respect and value for the person, even if you disagree with their views or actions. Also provide opportunity for the person to express their values prior to talking about the specific problem,” she continues.

Of course, these findings are relevant far beyond just the world of coworker dynamics and office drama. Romantic relationships are often made or broken based on defensive behaviors. On a more serious note, even the highest stages of world government are ultimately led by individuals prone to defensive tendencies like everyone else. It’s astounding to consider how this quirk of human nature may be influencing decisions that impact literally millions of people.

“Defensiveness creates blind spots in decision-making. When individuals and groups respond defensively problems go unrecognised, victims go unacknowledged, and relationships deteriorate.” professor Woodyatt notes.

Turning the tables for a moment, it isn’t always easy to approach someone with caring and respect if you feel like they’ve wronged you or made a big costly mistake.

“Of course these responses do not always feel natural or easy – especially when faced with someone who we think has done wrong to us. Our instinct is also self-protective. As a result when people are caught doing something wrong in our society we often stigmatise, reject or punish them, but this is likely only strengthening those defensive responses over time, not just of that person but of other people in similar situations,” Professor Woodyatt adds.

From an evolutionary perspective, humans likely developed our defensive tendencies as a mental health survival mechanism of sorts. In a healthy manner, defensive thoughts and actions help us pick ourselves up after an embarrassment or mistake, or maintain a sense of optimism when faced with a tough situation. 

In conclusion, this study is a great piece of research to keep in mind the next time you feel compelled to address a problem or mistake with someone in your life. By all means, tackle the issue, but perhaps preface that discussion with some positive sentiments.

The full study can be found here, published in the British Journal of Social Psychology.