Psychological projection is a pattern of thought in which we attribute to another person thoughts or feelings that relate in some way to our own. Usually, the term is applied to the process of attributing one's own unacceptable thoughts to others. For example, if we're feeling vulnerable in a given situation, we might attribute feelings of vulnerability to another person in that situation. Or someone who habitually lies might adopt a belief that others habitually lie as well. For some, such attributing provides comfort or insulation from the discomfort that might arise from the thoughts or feelings like the ones he or she attributes to others.
In this form, projection provides us with a tool for self-deception. It enables us to avoid the discomfort or pain associated with some thoughts or feelings by attributing those same thoughts or feelings to others. Evidence isn't required. We just do it, often outside our own awareness.
Another form of projection occurs when we attribute to someone else what we ourselves would think or feel if our own circumstances matched what we believe the other person is experiencing. For example, when we look upon a tearful child who has been present during an accident injuring a puppy, projection might lead us to feel sadness ourselves, or at least to attribute feelings of sadness to the child. We might make such an attribution even if we lack evidence that the child was aware of what happened to the puppy. Or we might assess as unreliable and motivated by vengeance the word of a recently terminated employee regarding impropriety at the company from which that employee was discharged. Projection enables us to make such assessments and routinely take them as factual without any evidence at all.
Projection isn't good or bad, even though the term is usually a term of disparagement in everyday interactions. For example, when one person accuses another, without evidence, of lying for personal gain, the term projection might be invoked to describe the accuser's thought process. Projecting in that way is generally deprecated. But the ability to project provides valuable advantages. For example, anyone who wants to display or experience empathy for a person in trouble would find helpful the ability to project. The ability to project, like the ability to think, is a tool. It can be used — or misused.
And one particular misuse of projection is what I'm exploring in this post — the use of projection for the purpose of deceiving others.
A fake email hardcopy scenario
Here's an example. Projection isn't good or bad,
even though the term is
usually a term of disparagement
in everyday interactionsI'll use the name Deceiver for the deceiver, and Target for the target — the person deceived. I assigned male gender to Deceiver and female to Target by a coin flip.
Target's supervisor, Deceiver, knows that Target wants to lead an upcoming project. He also knows that he and the project sponsor, whom I call Sponsor, have already chosen someone else for the position without posting the opportunity publicly, which is contrary to company policy. To conceal their subterfuge, Deceiver and Sponsor won't be announcing their decision until next month.
Meanwhile, Target has asked Deceiver to help her get the assignment, but Deceiver doesn't want to tell her the bad news. He wants her to believe that he's trying to help her. So before their next weekly one-on-one meeting in Deceiver's office, Deceiver composes an email message to Sponsor that recommends Target for the position, but he doesn't send the message. He prints it, and leaves the hardcopy on his desk, with a few revisions marked, as if he's working on the wording.
He arranges to be late for his meeting with Target, and calls her mobile phone just before the meeting. He tells her that he thinks he'll arrive on time, but he might be a bit late, and if he is, she should wait for him in his office. He's relying on her curiosity — he expects her to read the fake draft message on his desk. When he arrives, he hastily gathers the papers on his desk and tucks them into a folder. Maybe she reads it, maybe not. If she does, his ploy works.
In this scenario, Deceiver uses projection to anticipate that Target might be tempted to snoop a bit by reading the hardcopy fake message sitting on Deceiver's desk. Because Deceiver feels that he (Deceiver) would be tempted in this way, he hopes that Target might also be so tempted. It isn't a sure-fire tactic, but it just might work.
Is anticipatory projection a thing?
One difference between the sort of projection described in the Fake Email Hardcopy scenario and a more typical use of the term projection is that the projection executed by Deceiver is anticipatory. That is, Deceiver does his projecting in advance of the Target's participation in the event. Most uses of the term projection refer to one person's thought process occurring contemporaneously with another person's behavior, feelings, or thoughts.
But I believe that we also use projection both retrospectively and prospectively. We use it to understand how others behaved in past circumstances, and we use it to predict how others will behave in circumstances yet to pass. I haven't found research to justify this belief, but I'm still looking. You can decide for yourself about the validity of this conjecture. Top Next Issue
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