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Aggression and Adaptation: An Online Psychodynamic Discourse Analysis of Ego Defense in the Body Positive Community


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This study places online aggression within the larger context of human behavior and development research. A review of existing literature identifies a need for a more nuanced approach to the study of online aggression, one that takes into account the potentially adaptive functions of aggressive online discourse. By using psychodynamic ego defense research as a framework through which to analyze aggressive online discourse, this study provides insight into the complex psychological function of aggression within online discussion forums. Results suggest that aggression in online forums falls primarily within the neurotic and immature categories of defense and includes a significant number of adaptive or mature comments. The method created for this study, Online Psychodynamic Discourse Analysis, offers a useful new perspective to existing methods of online research.
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Aggression and Adaptation: An Online Psychodynamic Discourse Analysis
Of Ego Defense in the Body Positive Community
Heather Michelann Quimby
This study places online aggression within the larger context of human behavior and
development research. A review of existing literature identifies a need for a more
nuanced approach to the study of online aggression, one that takes into account the
potentially adaptive functions of aggressive online discourse. By using psychodynamic
ego defense research as a framework through which to analyze aggressive online
discourse, this study provides insight into the complex psychological function of
aggression within online discussion forums. Results suggest that aggression in online
forums falls primarily within the neurotic and immature categories of defense and
includes a significant number of adaptive or mature comments. The method created for
this study, Online Psychodynamic Discourse Analysis, offers a useful new perspective to
existing methods of online research.
Keywords: Online aggression, cyberbullying, psychodynamic, discourse analysis,
cyberpsychology, human development, aggression
Copyright by
I have been gifted with a cadre of awesome people who helped me in countless
ways. Stephen Murphy Shigematsu, my chair, provided support, invaluable insight, and
solid faith in my ability to contribute something of worth to my field. He helped me sort
through my scattered thoughts when I couldn’t. My faculty readers, Keith Melville and
David Blake Willis, provided encouragement, prodding, and valuable feedback. Mary
McCall, my mentor, provided valuable guidance as I developed my topic and method.
Jeff Kaiser, my external reader, provided much needed perspective from my discipline
and support for my work. Hannah Lee, my student reader, was always willing to chat
online at all hours as we exhausted our supply of silly emojis and nonsequiturs. She’s
also wicked smart, insightful, and a badass editor. Speaking of editors, mine was my
mom, Nancy Oster. She read every single word of this dissertation multiple times. I owe
much of my writing ability to her. It’s hard to be the daughter of an excellent writer and
not have a little rub off.
Judy Stevens Long provided me with inspiration, constructive criticism, much
needed courage bolstering, and many laughs. Judy, I want to be like you when I grow up.
My former professor Pauline Albert introduced me to Fielding and has become a
cherished friend, mentor, and sharer of very long lunches. Her support and perspective
over the 10 years I have known her are treasured gifts. She also introduced me to the
work of George Vaillant, which eventually inspired the topic of this study.
My fellow travelers in the cohort of May 2013 have become a caring community
and trusted friends. Our conference calls, phone conversations, and happy hours at
Winter Sessions helped me keep trucking. I’m honored to be among you. Extra hugs for
Aman and Erika. In spite of only meeting in person a handful of times, you are true
Thanks to my Santa Barbara family, mom Nancy, dad David, brother Shaun,
niece Saraphina, and sister from another mother Roxanna and her family, for always
making me feel loved and supported when I was in town for Winter Session and
committee meetings. I was always well fed, caffeinated, and cared for while in the
Fielding whirlwind. Now I need a new excuse for my yearly solo trip to the beach.
I am grateful to my therapists/unofficial academic advisors, Jan and Travis. You
inspire me to make a difference. So do my students at St. Edward’s University, from
whom I learn something profound every semester. You are the reason why I chose this
Finally, all the gratitude and love I can express to my little but powerful family,
my husband David and my daughter Lillian. You have loved me, sustained me, supported
me, put up with my crap, and made this journey all the more meaningful.
To Lillian and David. You are my heart.
Table of Contents
Personal Interest: Moving from Participant to Participant-Observer ................................. 2
Body Positive Activism and Self-Expression ............................................................. 3
Self-Examination ........................................................................................................ 4
Ego Defense Mechanisms and the Work of George Vaillant ............................................. 6
Cyberbullying and Online Aggression Research .............................................................. 10
Terminology .............................................................................................................. 11
Central Conversations about Online Aggression ...................................................... 11
Defining Bullying and Cyberbullying: Behavioral Approaches ............................... 12
Other Criticisms of Cyberbullying ............................................................................ 14
Methods and Goals of Cyberbullying Research ....................................................... 16
Ego Defense Mechanisms and Aggression ....................................................................... 20
Sigmund Freud and Anna Freud ............................................................................... 20
Ego Defense Theory and Models .............................................................................. 21
A Psychodynamic Model of Bullying ....................................................................... 26
Aggression in Social Systems ................................................................................... 27
Beyond Bullies and Victims: Ego Defense and Online Aggression ................................. 31
The Fallacy of Cyberbullying: Don’t Feed the Trolls .............................................. 31
Psychodynamic Processes in Cyberspace ................................................................. 36
A Compelling Need for Developmental and Psychodynamic Research .................. 38
Conclusion ........................................................................................................................ 40
Problem Statement ............................................................................................................ 42
Research Question ............................................................................................................ 42
Research Design ................................................................................................................ 43
Background ............................................................................................................... 43
Development of Analytical Framework .................................................................... 43
Sample ............................................................................................................................... 46
Sample Source .......................................................................................................... 47
Sample Selection ....................................................................................................... 47
Privacy ...................................................................................................................... 50
Pilot ................................................................................................................................... 50
Methodology ..................................................................................................................... 52
Discourse Analysis .................................................................................................... 52
Applied Psychoanalysis ............................................................................................ 53
Descriptive Statistics ................................................................................................. 53
Research Bias .................................................................................................................... 54
Assumptions, Limitations, and Delimitations ................................................................... 54
Assumptions .............................................................................................................. 54
Delimitations ............................................................................................................. 55
Limitations ................................................................................................................ 55
Summary ........................................................................................................................... 56
Defense Mechanisms Demonstrated in Total Sample ...................................................... 57
Discourse Associated with Predominant Defense Mechanisms ....................................... 62
Projection .................................................................................................................. 62
Displacement ............................................................................................................. 63
Isolation and Rationalization .................................................................................... 65
Characteristics of Individual Samples .............................................................................. 67
Instagram Sample ...................................................................................................... 67
Guardian Sample ....................................................................................................... 69
YouTube Sample ...................................................................................................... 72
Summary ........................................................................................................................... 75
Context of Study ............................................................................................................... 77
The Nature of Online Forums ................................................................................... 77
Discussion of Results: Dominant Defense Mechanisms .................................................. 78
Projection .................................................................................................................. 79
Displacement ............................................................................................................. 82
Implications of Levels of Defense .................................................................................... 85
Lack of Psychotic Defense ........................................................................................ 85
Defense and Growth ................................................................................................. 87
Compassion in Conflict .................................................................................................... 88
YouTube: From Denigration to Protection ............................................................... 88
The Guardian: Flexibility and Humor ...................................................................... 89
Instagram: Defensiveness and Altruism ................................................................... 90
Significance of Study ........................................................................................................ 91
Limitations .......................................................................................................................... 93
Conclusion ........................................................................................................................ 94
REFERENCES ................................................................................................................ 95
List of Figures
1. Distribution of Defense Mechanisms Across Full Sample……………………....…..61
2. Distribution of Defense Mechanisms by Category Across Full Sample ……….…...62
3. Instagram Sample Defense Mechanisms……………………………………..……...67
4. Instagram Sample Defense Levels………………………………………….……….69
5. Guardian Sample Defense Mechanisms…………………………………………….70
6. Guardian Sample Defense Levels…………………………………………………..72
7. YouTube Sample Defense Mechanisms…………………………………….………73
8. YouTube Sample Defense Levels……………………………………….…………..75
List of Tables
1. Defense Mechanisms in Online Behavior………………………………………….8
2. Classification of Cyberbullying/Cyber-Aggression Research…………………….17
3. Online Behavior and Ego Defense Mechanisms in L. West Account…………….35
4. Sample Coding………………………………………………………………….…45
5. Defense Mechanisms in Coded in Full Sample………………..……………….…59
A. GLOSSARY .............................................................................................................. 103
On a recent segment of the National Public Radio program This American Life,
feminist and body positive blogger Lindy West spoke about how being trolled (online
disparagement and threats) is a part of her daily life (Glass, 2015). In the segment, she
reads examples of disparaging tweets, comments, and emails sent to her by aggressive
anonymous readers (known as trolls) including, "No one would want to rape that fat
disgusting mess," "Kill yourself," and "That big bitch is bitter that no one wants to rape
her." She explains that as a feminist who writes online about issues such as rape culture
and fat discrimination, dealing with online aggression is "part of my job."
Online aggression is a phenomenon that has garnered a great deal of attention in
the media and in the fields of psychology, criminology, and education. The perception of
anonymity online, combined with limited legal safeguards and social norms established
to control online behavior is thought to reinforce aberrant behavior (Bartlett, 2013), a
phenomenon that has been named the Online Disinhibition Effect (Chaikin, 2007; Suler,
2004). While research suggests negative effects of online aggression (Corbett, 2008;
Davidson & Stein, 2014; Hinduja & Patchin, 2010; Seiler & Navarro, 2014), the potential
for positive outcomes has garnered little attention, which is why the next part of West’s
story is so unusual and compelling.
West recounts the story of one of her most aggressive trolls, a man who created a
Twitter and Facebook account under the name of her recently deceased father in order to
publicly humiliate her. Finding herself unable to follow standard folk wisdom "don’t
feed the trolls" (ignore online aggression), she published an article in Jezebel magazine
discussing her feelings about such acts of harassment and psychological violence (West,
2013). The day after the article was published online, the troll contacted her by email and
apologized for his behavior, offering some personal reflection on his motivation: "I think
my anger towards you stems from your happiness with your own being. It offended me
because it served to highlight my unhappiness with my own self." This exchange
eventually led West and her troll to participate in the segment on This American Life.
During their exchange, the man explained that he was significantly overweight when he
was engaged in online trolling, and West, as a publicly body-positive fat woman, became
a perfect target for his projected self-loathing.
The troll (his name is never disclosed) was induced by Ms. West’s feedback to
examine his own happiness, motivation, and relationship with himself, an outcome that is
not accounted for in existing literature about cyber aggression and cyberbullying. Ms.
West claims that the experience changed her attitude towards trolls, helping her recognize
their pain. The redemptive tone of this story is remarkable, particularly in light of current
reports of extreme forms of online aggression (such as the online movement tagged as
#gamergate, Docterman, 2014) and negative assumptions about the psychological health
of trolls (Eksi, 2012; Runios, 2013; Schenk, Fremouw, & Keelan, 2013). While
cyberbullying is often characterized as a one-way exchange between aggressor and
victim, the reality is more complex.
Personal Interest: Moving from Participant to Participant-Observer
As a long-time internet participant, I have observed a growing disparity between
the complex fluidity of online interactions and the rigidity with which they are interpreted
by researchers. This is further exacerbated by the sensationalist nature of the modern
press (online and otherwise) who often only report extreme online behaviors. Often
portrayed as a harbinger or contributor to the death of civil society; online conflict is
almost never looked at as an integral part of human interaction, despite its ubiquity.
By breaking from this norm, West’s story crystallized my dissatisfaction with the
way in which online participants are generally characterized—as one-dimensional actors
incapable of agency, growth, or connection. Existing literature on online aggression
tends to separate actors into two categories: bully and victim. This assumption is flawed.
As I developed my research, I found myself pursuing two goals:
1. Providing a more nuanced, complex picture of online behavior that takes into
account the significant structural differences between face-to-face and online
2. Bringing psychodynamic theory into the analysis of not what people do or
how they do it online, but the many complex reasons why they express
aggression in online environments.
Body Positive Activism and Self-Expression
West is a feminist and body positive (BOPO) activist. Body Positive refers to a
mainly online community that combats restrictive and discriminatory social norms
around physical beauty and health, particularly through blogs, websites, and photography
(Sastre, 2014). As a participant in this movement, it is particularly fascinating to observe
how social norms around body normativity are challenged, policed, reinforced,
challenged again, and sometimes transformed through grassroots, online activism.
Implicit in these exchanges are the ways in which social norms around the expression of
aggression are also challenged, policed, and transformed. People who engage in conflict
online do not only challenge existing beliefs and norms about their chosen topic, they
also challenge the ways in which society expresses emotions like anger, rage, disgust,
fear, and love. It is these online negotiations of the expression of often-taboo thoughts
and feelings that pique my interest.
As my plans for this dissertation began to take shape, I started blogging about my
own experiences with online aggression and analyzing them through a psychodynamic
lens. The work of George Vaillant, a psychiatrist with a lifelong interest in the adaptive
properties of ego defense (1993), provided a starting place for my work. Vaillant
believes that the ways in which humans distort reality in order to cope (i.e., ego defense
mechanisms) are the key to positive development over the entire lifespan (Vaillant, 1992,
1993; Landes, Ardelt, Vaillant, & Waldinger, 2014). Defense mechanisms allow people
to become partially aware of unconscious feelings or desires, which can lead to greater
consciousness and more mature behavior. Vaillant arranges ego defense mechanisms in a
spectrum ranging from psychotic to adaptive. His longitudinal research shows that
people generally move from less to more adaptive behavior over their lifespan, including
into old age (Landes, Ardelt, Vaillant, & Waldinger, 2014). Examining online behavior
through this lens allowed me to identify patterns in how online participants engage in ego
defense as they defend their ideas, each other, and existent social norms. An unplanned
foray into self-examination kindled my interest in using this type of analysis to examine
online aggression.
On this occasion, I reacted poorly to a YouTube user’s critique of a body-positive
music video, posting a sarcastic response to his disparaging comment about the video
content. In response, he posted several long, aggressive diatribes about the failings of
body-positive fat people. At first intimidated by the aggressiveness of his stance, I
became intrigued by the interplay of emotions and defenses evident in his writing. He
would cite scientific articles refuting healthy fatness and claim a rational, measured
stance, then, in the next sentence, use disparaging and abusive language to describe fat
people. It became evident that he was experiencing multiple emotions over the course of
one long post.
I decided to turn the same analytical lens on myself. It soon became clear that I
was also acting from a place of defense by projecting anger from my experiences with fat
discrimination and disparagement on this anonymous person on the internet. I had, in
fact, initiated the aggressive exchange. Belying my belief in my superior moral and
intellectual position, I behaved at a similar level of maturity as the other commenter.
While this event did not demonstrate the kind of mutual transformation described
in West’s story, it led me to consider that the assigned victim and bully roles in online
aggression might be oversimplified. Becoming conscious of my own defensive behavior,
I re-entered the conversation in a more conscious way: apologizing for my comment and
explaining my position. This changed the tone of the subsequent dialogue. While the
initial commenter disappeared (in itself a more adaptive response than disparaging
attacks), other participants seemed more likely to consider multiple viewpoints after I had
shifted my position. Several people then engaged in defending me or suggesting alternate
The lack of research on human development through online conflict indicates a
disturbing gap in the literature with regard to the potential for adaptive outcomes of
aggression online. While there is a growing body of literature on the adaptive aspects of
relational aggression in children and youth (Archer & Coyne, 2005; Banny Heilbron,
Ames, & Prinstein, 2011), there is scant research on the effect of agency of online
conflict. There is instead a pervasive belief that online behavior is innately disinhibited
and therefore aberrant and dangerous (Suler, 2004).
While horrific violence takes place online, some studies have shown that its
frequency is highly exaggerated by media attention (Olweus, 2012). A more nuanced
and unbiased view into the complex dynamics of online aggression is needed, particularly
one that allows for the possibility of adaptive behavior. Integrating applied
psychodynamic analysis with digital discourse analysis may allow for a more holistic
view of the contribution of online behavior to human behavior as a whole. The work of
George Vaillant, has become crucial to my examination of these phenomena online.
Ego Defense Mechanisms and the Work of George Vaillant
George Vaillant has been studying the development and transformation of human
ego defense mechanisms since the mid-20th century. Originally a traditional Freudian
psychiatrist, he began to observe recovery amongst populations thought to be
“incurable,” such as heroin addicts and schizophrenics. This led him to his lifelong work
with the Grant Study, a group of men who have been studied throughout their adult lives
through longitudinal analyses (Shenk, 2009).
Vaillant believes that while defense mechanisms form in childhood to mediate the
relationship between reality and the psyche, they continue to transform and adapt through
adulthood. In the introduction to his book, The Wisdom of the Ego (1993), he states,
This book is about middle-aged men and women wrestling with learning how to
love, with making meaning, with reordering chaos, and with discovering, often
inadvertently, how to put in the world what was not there before. (Vaillant, 1993,
This statement resonates with West’s story and my experiences with online aggression.
Personal growth through online conflict is not looked for or desired—it is, as Vaillant
puts it— "inadvertent." Through the very defense mechanisms that drive aggression,
awareness and compassion may arise. Table 1 provides examples of how Vaillant’s
defense mechanisms can be applied to online behavior:
Table 1
Defense Mechanisms in Online Behavior (Derived from Vaillant, 1993)
Level of
Online Behavior
distortion to
protect ego
from trauma
or violent
Invents fictional
relationship or
event to distract
from trauma.
Direct threats of
physical and/or sexual
violence, cyber-
stalking, revenge
porn, and swatting.
experience of
Sees one’s flaws or
fears in another
and attacks the
object of
Verbal denigration
such as directly
criticizing others’
bodies, faces, beliefs,
etc. Name-calling,
degrading language.
experience of
Experiences the
thoughts associated
with trauma but not
the emotions.
often referred to as
"policing" of other’s
behavior or bodies as
normative. Usually
takes the form of
citing articles or other
sources of perceived
authority to subtly
denigrate the target
while claiming a
neutral or helping
experience of
associated with
without focusing
on pain.
Blogging that deals
with trauma or
oppressive social
norms through humor
and joining with
others in shared
Vaillant uses psychodynamic psychology to understand how people change and
grow, in therapy or out, through the adult life span. His work has the potential for
applicability in the online world. Online, people express aggression, defense, and
emotion with words and image in the absence of physical cues such as posture, vocal
tone, and facial expressions. Where many see the online world as a cesspool of immature
or psychotic narcissists, online discourse provides a window into the diverse
psychological worlds of people who are striving to be recognized and understood in new
and complex ways.
The worlds of social media and online interaction have already prompted much
research, but as the anecdotal stories included in this chapter suggest, existing research
may be biased towards pathological rather than developmental interpretations. Social
norms change rapidly online (as does the technology driving online communication) and
are thus not so easily understood by existing schemas. We must examine the schemas
and models that inform the interpretation of online interaction at least as deeply as we
examine the behaviors themselves.
This chapter provides critical analysis of the existing literature on online
aggression, arguing that cyberbullying models are inadequate for describing online
conflict, aggression, and violence. An overview of psychodynamic ego defense theory
and its application in face-to-face and online environments will demonstrate its potential
for understanding the commonalities and differences between online and offline
First, an overview of methods, questions, and conclusions from cyberbullying
research will identify gaps in research on why aggression occurs online and what social
or psychological function it serves for those who engage in it. This overview will
identify the need for more nuanced research on how aggression evolves—research that is
not predicated on face-to-face bullying models and assumptions. Psychodynamic
literature has traditionally been concerned with the hidden motivations behind non-
normative behavior. While online aggression may not easily fit into models based on
bullying research, it is still human behavior, which grows from human needs and desires.
This chapter will demonstrate how ego defense theory can provide much needed,
nuanced insight into the underlying psychological forces that cause online aggression and
allow it to evolve in ways not explainable by existing models—particularly in the
potential for adaptive change over time.
Cyberbullying and Online Aggression Research
Online aggression is studied from multiple perspectives. Much of the literature
on online aggression focuses on how it is defined and enacted. This section examines
how current literature defines and studies online aggression and identifies gaps in
currently available research.
Aggressive behavior online is referred to in multiple ways, some of which overlap
considerably. Because of the emergent nature of these phenomena, these terms are often
imprecise and subject to frequent change in meaning and usage.
This chapter will use online aggression as a general term for aggressive behavior
on the internet. Much of the literature uses the term cyberbullying, which will be used
when describing studies that refer to it as such. Other terms include cyber-aggression as
a substitute for cyberbullying in some studies, cybercrime, which generally refers to theft
and illegal use of private information, and trolling, which is online harassment that is
consciously intended to cause emotional distress.
Central Conversations about Online Aggression
Cyberbullying is a term used by researchers and the media to describe aggressive
behaviors on the internet. These behaviors can range greatly in severity and impact to
include violent threats and stalking and text-based disparagement and argument. Most
academic cyberbullying studies focus on children, teens, and college students; fewer data
are available on adults. While there have been many attempts to define cyberbullying
(Grigg, 2010; Langos, 2012; Langos, 2014; Ybarra, Boyd, Korchmaros, & Oppenheim,
2012), there is little discussion about the psychological motives of online aggression.
The definition of cyberbullying is derived from bullying research, which views bullying
as a phenomenon comprised of specific interpersonal dynamics and psychological
processes. These dynamics and processes do not always manifest in online interactions.
Defining Bullying and Cyberbullying: Behavioral Approaches
Cyberbullying is most often defined behaviorally. Cyberbullying derives from
existing definitions of bullying, which include three main elements: the intention to cause
harm, repetitive aggressive actions, and an imbalance of power between bully and victim
(Menesini, 2012, p. 546). Definitions of cyberbullying vary slightly, but generally
include at least two of these elements with an additional technological component:
Cyberbullying is defined as repeated unwanted, hurtful, harassing, and/or
threatening interaction through electronic communication media. (Rafferty &
Vander Ven, 2014, p. 364)
Cyberbullying is any behavior performed through electronic or digital media by
individuals or groups that repeatedly communicates hostile or aggressive
messages intended to inflict harm or discomfort on others. (Tokunaga, 2010, p.
Cyberbullying can refer to a wide range of behaviors. An example behavior is
swatting—falsely reporting a violent crime to the police using hacked personal
information (Jouvenal, 2015). Cyberbullying can also refer to threats of rape on Twitter
(Dewey, 2014) and is applied to groups of people collaborating to write slanderous
reviews of specific books or authors (Flood, 2014). Cyberbullying can refer to happy
slapping (physical assault for the purpose of recording and posting on the internet) and
sexual harassment through words and imagery such as cyberstalking and revenge porn.
Additionally, cyberbullying includes non-sexual denigration (derogatory or abusive
comments), and impersonation (also known as catfishing), which is the creation of a false
online persona in order to post offensive content attributed to the target (Langos, 2014, p.
116). It is difficult to imagine these varying levels of aggression existing under one
definition. Legally, they fall into different categories. For example, direct rape and death
threats in the physical world are classified as criminal acts (Texas Penal Code, n.d.),
whereas cruel or rude remarks are not.
While these definitions of cyberbullying leave out the power dynamic of the
traditional bullying model, some scholars have grappled with this aspect. Rafferty and
Vander Ven (2014) claim that technology increases the reach of bullies by allowing them
to publicly humiliate victims through social media. It also extends bullying beyond the
temporal confines of school or work because online interaction and texting can happen at
any time (Rafferty & Vander Ven, 2014). Additionally, technology can provide more
insidious avenues into bullying through anonymity (Bryce & Fraser, 2013). While these
models emphasize the power of digital media to increase the agency of face-to-face
bullies, in a qualitative study of cyberbullying in the workplace, one participant described
using the increased agency of his online persona to seek revenge against the person who
bullied him at work (Heatherington & Coyne, 2014). Even when cyberbullying is used as
an extension of face-to-face bullying, it may take on different qualities due to the
differences in power dynamics.
These definitions imply a lack of fluidity between roles of aggressor and target,
conflating the roles of target and victim. Targets of online aggression may have
considerable agency, particularly in situations of lesser types of denigration. Online
targets may engage in various kinds of defense, counter-aggression, and escalation.
Targets have used defensive techniques such as publicly exposing cyberbullying through
blogging (Mina, 2015), sending copies of sexually abusive messages from teenage
gamers to their mothers (True, 2014), and engaging in public discourse with online
aggressors (West, 2015). These examples are difficult to classify under existing
cyberbullying definitions. Are the targets now bullies because they responded
aggressively? Are they still considered victims, in spite of the effectiveness of their
counter-aggression? The cyberbullying model seems inadequate when the targets’
responses are examined with the same level of scrutiny as the agents.’
Other Criticisms of Cyberbullying
Cyberbullying is a term that has been overused (Olweus, 2012) and
sensationalized by the media (Phillips, 2015). Phillips points out parallels between
trolling activities (such as posting black humor and offensive images on the memorial
web pages of teens who have committed suicide) and corporate media’s almost identical,
ghoulishly detailed reporting of these events (p. 90). While the media points to
"cyberbullies" as the perpetrators of violent language and imagery that may drive
vulnerable youths to suicide, that same media covers such tragedies in a similarly
gruesome fashion. The media’s sensationalism normalizes the trolls’ behavior while
purporting to condemn it. Ironically, despite trolls’ claims to anarchic behavior, they
actually enact mainstream phenomena.
Media overemphasis on cyberbullying distorts public perception and may cause
resources for combating bullying in schools to be misappropriated (Olweus, 2012).
Empirical data on the rates of cyberbullying in schools found that the rate of
cyberbullying, both independent of and in conjunction with traditional bullying, is quite
low, and is of less consequence to the victims than traditional bullying. A study of Dark
Triad traits among adolescents (psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism) uses the
term cyber-aggression to encompass various kinds of online aggression (Pabian,
DeBacker, & Vandebosch, 2015). The authors found that cyber-aggression correlated
with psychopathy, but not narcissism and Machiavellianism as previously hypothesized,
further supporting claims that cyberbullying may be over-reported or distorted.
When researchers and reporters use the term cyberbullying to describe online
aggression it may have limited meaning for readers. Some theorists have used the term
“cyber-aggression” as an alternative or replacement for cyberbullying. Interviews with
elementary-age students through middle-aged adults were conducted to determine how
the word "cyberbullying" was defined and conceptualized (Grigg, 2010). Participants
found the term vague, restrictive, and ambiguous. The broad range of behaviors
attributed to cyberbullying may require more specific and descriptive terminology.
Referring to online aggression as cyberbullying may imply an assumption of a
powerful aggressor and a powerless victim—another holdover from face-to-face bullying
research. These roles are difficult to identify online, as levels of aggression fluctuate—
the online social system does not grant disproportionate power to any individual party.
At school, an aggressor may be physically or socially stronger than the target making the
aggressor more intimidating and harder to fight. Online, physical strength and social
status have little relevance, unless the online aggression is an extension of face-to-face
aggression. Even then, the relative parity in agency between aggressor and target may
change the bullying dynamic significantly (Heatherington & Coyne, 2014).
Finally, using cyberbullying as a blanket term for the wide range of behaviors that
make up online aggression is distorting. It can underemphasize the violent and dangerous
aspects of online aggression such as death and rape threats and hate speech, or conflate it
with more mundane online conflict such as arguments, insults, and disparagement. Put
simply, if calling people rude names is perceptually (or legally) lumped with threatening
to kill a person’s children, the current terminology is too broad. Examining the methods
and goals of cyberbullying research may clarify the reasons behind these issues in
existing research.
Methods and Goals of Cyberbullying Research
Cyberbullying has been studied using both qualitative and quantitative methods.
Both rely largely on self-reporting. Quantitative studies often are based on surveys where
respondents self-report on the rate and severity of cyberbullying using various pre-
existing instruments (Olweus, 2012; Pabian et al., 2015; Ybarra et al., 2012). Qualitative
studies rely on focus groups or interviews to examine the experience of cyberbullying
more closely (Bryce & Fraser, 2013; Grigg, 2010). Meta-analyses attempt to synthesize
large amounts of existing literature, looking for patterns, inconsistencies, or gaps
(Langos, 2012; Tokunaga, 2010). These types of articles are mainly concerned with five
1. What is cyberbullying? (How is it defined or delimited?)
2. When or where does cyberbullying occur? (What are the mediums and
3. Who becomes a cyberbully? (What types of people engage in cyberbullying?)
4. What are the results? (How are victims of cyberbullying affected?)
5. Why does cyberbullying take place?
Table 2
Classification of Cyberbullying/Cyber-Aggression Research
Who cyberbullies?
Phillips, 2015
Pabian et al., 2015
What is
Bryce & Fraser, 2013
Grigg, 2010
Langos, 2014
Ybarra et al., 2012
When/Where does
cyberbullying take
Langos, 2014
Olweus, 2012
How does
cyberbullying affect
Tokunaga, 2010
Rafferty & Vander Ven, 2014
Why do people
Qualitative/Applied psychoanalysis
Balick, 2012, 2014
Phillips, 2015
Qualitative/Applied psychoanalysis
Suler, 2004
Why Cyberbully? Questions 1 through 4 are the most heavily researched and
were discussed in the first segment of this chapter. Regarding question 5, common
methods such as self-reporting through interviews and questionnaires are unlikely to
reveal the motivations and impulses that lead to online aggression. For example, the
quantitative study that hypothesized that Dark Triad personality traits (psychopathy,
narcissism, and Machiavellianism) are tied to online aggression was largely inconclusive
(Pabian et al., 2015). The researchers used survey instruments to examine online
engagement, tendencies to aggress online, and Dark Triad traits. Each instrument relied
on the participants’ consciousness of their behavior. People with a tendency towards
narcissism and psychopathy are by their nature distorted in their self-view. Further,
children and youth are by their nature immature and cannot be subjected to the same
instruments as adults without distortion. Attempting to tie psychopathic traits to children
and teens who engage in cyber-aggression without direct observation of their behavior
seems likely to result in questionable findings. Psychological and ethnographic
examinations of online behavior result in greater depth and nuance, especially given that
most online aggression occurs asynchronously and with minimal visual cues.
An ethnographic approach to the causes of online aggression produced some
compelling results. Phillips (2015), a digital ethnographer, embedded herself within the
highly aggressive 4chan trolling community as a qualitative researcher, both observing
and interacting with participants. She also examined the relationship between the trolling
community and the corporate media, adding insight into the cultural forces that create or
reinforce psychologically violent online behavior. She asks why trolls consciously
attempt to violate cultural norms to the detriment of others. Phillips draws a connection
between the ways sensationalized media regularly violates taboos (such as showing
disturbing or exploitative video) in the name of information freedom, while trolls who
exhibit similar behavior are considered social deviants. By looking at why trolling has
emerged, Phillips puts those who troll into a social context where their behavior is not as
deviant (or at least non-normative) as it first appears. Phillips’ relationships within the
4chan community allowed her to look more critically at the existing assumptions about
the motivation of those who engage in online aggression.
Applied psychoanalysis, the study of existing texts using psychoanalytic methods,
provides another perspective on the underlying causes of online aggression. Utilizing
applied psychoanalysis as method, Suler’s essay on the psychology of online behavior,
The Online Disinhibition Effect (2004) posits several unconscious reasons for
disinhibited behavior on the internet. Although it is not associated with a study, Suler’s
essay is frequently cited as evidence of a connection between disinhibited behavior and
the unique aspects of online participation. This indicates a need for more substantive
research into the impulses driving cyber-aggression.
Like Suler, Balick’s research (2012, 2014) uses applied psychoanalysis. In his
examination of psychological phenomena in the online world (2014), his experience as a
therapist provides deeper insight into the potential motivations of participants. He is
neither too eager to frame all online phenomena within an existing theoretical framework
(such as bullying), nor is he convinced that all online interaction is entirely new. His
primary interest is, “The way in which the disruptive nature of technology operates
alongside the ways that social media mediates the basic human dynamics of relating (p.
xvi). Balick is interested in how online interaction fits into and changes the way people
relate. He believes that bringing a psychoanalytical perspective to understanding online
interaction will benefit therapists, who erroneously see online interaction as false. Balick
also makes the case that a psychodynamic perspective can bring more depth to public
policy, which often ignores the complexity of online interpersonal dynamics. His
research is mainly concerned with why people engage in various forms of online
interaction and performance of identity; answering these questions more fully could
fundamentally change how we look at participants in cyber-aggression.
Ego Defense Mechanisms and Aggression
The study of cyber aggression through bullying models and the continued use of
the term cyberbullying, which further conflates cyber aggression with bullying in schools
and workplaces, is misleading. Psychodynamic approaches to aggression offer a
different lens through which to view the sources and functions of perceived negative
online behaviors. The examination of ego defense mechanisms, in particular, can provide
insight into the drive to engage in aggressive online discourse. This section provides an
overview of ego defense theory and its potential for understanding online aggression.
Sigmund Freud and Anna Freud
The concept of ego defense mechanisms originated with Sigmund Freud. As a
physician, Freud became convinced that many maladies classified as physiological
originated in the mind (Maddi, 2001). Freud believed that his patients’ repressed sexual
experiences in childhood were the source of many of their symptoms. Freud identified
these as instincts: physical urges manifesting as emotions and desires. Freud imagined
these instincts as originating in sexual and self-preservation needs (eros) and death or
destruction impulse. These instincts are signals from the body, which lacking something
it needs or desires, creates tension or pressure in the mind. Instincts have an aim or goal
to relieve this tension: to avoid discomfort. Instincts also have an object: a specific
fixation that, when secured, will relieve the attendant discomfort. Through the defensive
function of the ego, the object is not always the actual cause of the instinct; it is more
often a reminder or symbol of the cause, a process called sublimation (Freud, 1923/2014).
Freud conceived of the mind as having three levels. The id represents the source
of instincts, unmediated by social or relational needs. It is wholly unconscious. The ego
is preconscious or subconscious; it develops to mediate the needs of the id with the world
outside the mind, resulting in abilities such as delayed gratification and sublimation. The
superego can be seen as an internalization of the norms and rules of the society in which
the person operates. It includes the person’s conscious and internalized understanding of
social norms. Freud conceived of the superego as the source of guilt, an uncomfortable
emotion capable of curbing or transforming anti-social instincts into substitute behaviors
acceptable to society (Freud, 1920/2011; Freud, 1923/2014).
Freud theorized that the tension between the instinctual id and the social superego
creates defenses (distortion of reality by the mind), to balance instinct gratification with
the fear of punishment or guilt (Freud, 1920/2011). His daughter Anna Freud compiled
his work on defense and published it toward the end of his life (1937/1966). She
classified defense as having three functions. Defense against instincts arises in
psychoanalysis when the patient resists accessing material from the id. This material is
often highly taboo, so the patient resists accessing it through various methods. Defense
against affects (emotions) such as love, lust, rage, or other feelings deemed inappropriate
to society are demonstrated in behaviors such as suppression and denial. Some defenses
manifest as fixed physical attributes or attitudes, called permanent defense phenomena
(A. Freud, 1937/1966).
Ego Defense Theory and Models
Defense mechanisms vary in type, degree, and level of adaptiveness. They allow
humans to balance instinctual needs and strong emotions with social needs and norms by
distorting the perception of reality to a greater or lesser degree. Many scholars see
Freud’s work on ego defense as depressingly nihilistic, interpreting his stance on defense
as an assertion that humans can never be fully conscious or free from neurosis (Maddi,
2001). While defense mechanisms can be symptoms of psychiatric disorders, they also
provide ways for humans to become more mature and self-regulated (Vaillant, 1992).
George Vaillant and Ego Defense as Growth. Researcher George Vaillant
views Freud’s assertions from a developmental perspective, finding ample evidence for
hope in the resilience of the human spirit (Vaillant, 1992). A psychiatrist and researcher
who has been studying ego defense since the mid-20th century, Vaillant observed
recovery amongst populations thought to be “incurable”— addicts and schizophrenics
(Shenk, 2009). This led him to engage with a number of longitudinal studies, including
the Grant Study, the Terman Women Study, and the Core City Study (Vaillant, 1993).
Vaillant believes that while defense mechanisms are formed in childhood to mediate the
relationship between reality and the psyche, they continue to transform throughout
adulthood. Humans move naturally toward more adaptive ways of being. Vaillant has
provided the psychiatric and therapeutic communities with one of the most modern and
detailed models of ego defense from a developmental perspective. He arranged ego
defense mechanisms into a spectrum in which there are four major categories of defense:
Psychotic, Immature, Neurotic, and Adaptive (1992). These were included in the
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), third and fourth editions
(American Psychiatric Association, 2000; 2013).
Vaillant’s developmental approach to psychodynamic theory is compelling. He
believes that Freud thought defense mechanisms could be conscious and adaptive in
outcome (Vaillant, 1992), viewing ego defense as part of the developmental path, rather
than as pathological. However, Freud is often classified as belonging to a psychosocial
conflict model of personality theory (Maddi, 2001) or the drive reduction model
(Goldhaber, 2000), which imagines human life as a constant struggle between acceptance
by society and gratification of instinctual needs. Anna Freud portrays the therapeutic
process as a mechanism by which the patient can become gradually aware of the
sublimation of desire, whether it is initially expressed as aggression or altruism, and can
resolve the conflict that led to the defense mechanism (A. Freud, 1937/1966).
Reductionist or pathologizing views of Freud’s work ignore the points at which
Freud described defenses as adaptive and conscious (Vaillant, 1993). Vaillant conceives
of defenses as ways in which humans protect themselves from trauma and prepare
themselves for consciousness when the time is right: "The mind’s defenses—like the
body’s immune mechanisms—protect us by providing a variety of illusions to filter pain
and allow self-soothing" (Vaillant, 1993, p. 1). His research demonstrates that defenses
are creative and necessary ways in which humans tolerate the intolerable. Vaillant has
observed defenses change and evolve over the lifespan as people mature, become more
resilient, and more aware. Vaillant is committed to the idea that adults can become more
aware and adaptive as they mature, with or without therapeutic intervention. Used as a
developmental model, defense mechanisms may show that uncivil behaviors online are
motivated by the developmental drive, just as they are in any other context.
Ego Defense and Aggression. Certain defenses can present as aggression,
particularly those that manifest as angry behavior. In Vaillant’s glossary of defense
mechanisms from the DSM-111-R (1992), acting out is characterized by behavior that
lacks consideration of outcomes, which can include harmful or abusive speech and
actions. Projection is experiencing suppressed emotion by seeing it in others—often a
component of splitting, which is characterizing the self or another as either all good or all
bad. Isolation describes harmful behavior that takes place without the actor experiencing
the motivating emotion. Passive aggression is turning anger against oneself in a way that
may also be distressing or harmful to others.
These defenses fall into the immature and neurotic categories—they are common
ways in which people process traumatic and repressed material from the unconscious. At
the far ends of this spectrum are psychotic and adaptive defense mechanisms. Psychotic
defenses are often exaggerated forms of more moderate defenses that involve altering the
perception of reality in extreme ways. Delusional projection, for example, is creating a
wholly fictional fantasy of external causation or persecution to escape reality. Mature or
adaptive defenses are likewise often less delusional versions of the middling immature
and neurotic defenses. Sublimation is perhaps a more conscious form of acting out, one
in which the actors find an acceptable outlet for an unacceptable impulse or trauma.
Vaillant’s interpretation and classification of ego defense mechanisms make it
possible to examine a wide range of human behaviors from a developmental standpoint.
If one accepts, as Vaillant does, that humans (a) always engage in some form of ego
defense, and (b) these defenses are likely to increase in adaptiveness over the lifespan,
this model has the potential to create more nuanced understanding of behavior within
new, distinct social systems such as those found on the internet and other electronically
mediated communication. Examining defensive behaviors, rather than applying broad
behavioral models, will provide a clearer picture of how humans interact on the internet
and why they do so.
Defense Mechanisms on the Internet. Each of the described defense
mechanisms is observable in online behavior. Online stalking, like face-to-face stalking,
may be a result of delusional projection. Online activism and community around
structural inequality or discrimination can be an expression of sublimation. Attacking or
disparaging another person via online comments may be a form of acting out or
displacement. Minimizing others’ thoughts or feelings through pseudo-scientific
arguments may be a form of isolation of affect. These behaviors are ubiquitous on social
media, but the literature rarely examines online aggression through a developmental,
psychodynamic lens because existing literature is largely an extension of face-to-face
behavioral research on bullying. This begs several questions. How do researchers make
sense of online aggression? In what context is it studied? What are the similarities and
differences between online and face-to-face aggressive behaviors? Where are the gaps
between face-to-face aggression research and online aggression research? In order to
answer these questions, we must first take a deeper look at the intersection of bullying
research and defense mechanisms.
It is important to look beyond surface behavioral data and examine how
unconscious impulses and unmet needs play out in online interaction, just as they do in
face-to-face relationships and environments. This may provide deeper insight into the
motivation of online participants, aggressive and otherwise. People bring their histories,
neuroses, emotions, and personalities with them to the online world. The study of ego
defense mechanisms provides a window into behavior that may seem antisocial or
counter productive on the surface, but may have its roots in adaptation to adversity or
unhealthy family systems.
A Psychodynamic Model of Bullying
The psychodynamic approach to aggression and bullying research illuminates the
underlying drives behind aggressive behavior, and how the systems in which they emerge
can perpetuate them. This model can also demonstrate how online systems are distinctly
different from systems such as family, school, and work, where bullying and aggression
are traditionally studied.
In The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence, (1937/1966), Anna Freud argues that
children adopt defense mechanisms to resolve psychological conflict with their parents.
Rage, desire, or jealousy directed at the parent leads to cognitive distortions that
temporarily resolve the internal conflicts that threaten primary relationships and safety.
Once embedded, these behaviors are unconsciously repeated in childhood and adult
relationships. Sigmund Freud imagined defense mechanisms as ways in which children,
and eventually adults, reconcile their primal instincts with social conventions. Freud
believed that adults were capable of resolving childhood conflicts between base desires
and parental expectations by the use of increasingly adaptive defense mechanisms such as
sublimation, humor, and altruism (Vaillant, 1992).
The psychodynamic model raises one of the most problematic aspects of the
behavioral definitions of both bullying and cyberbullying—the element of intent. If
aggression is the partial enactment of unconscious desires or feelings, how may one
determine harmful intent? The psychodynamic model of bullying is predicated on the
unconscious defenses of the participants—defenses which are further facilitated by the
system in which they operate.
Aggression in Social Systems
Bullying behavior originates in the family system. In an article on the
psychodynamics of childhood bullying, Waddel (2007) describes a mother who was
unable to tolerate her own negative emotions and those of her infant son. Though
redirecting, deflecting, or ignoring the child when he exhibited rage or frustration, the
mother unwittingly encouraged the child to develop primitive defense mechanisms.
These included isolation—the inability to recognize negative feelings; splitting—the
separation of accepted from rejected feelings or desires; and projection—the distortion of
seeing one's own split-off emotions and desires in another. In time, the child became
physically sadistic towards insects and subsequently his peers. Moreover, the child
himself felt persecuted. While not consciously intending harm, he in fact also
experienced counter aggression by a group of children whom he had bullied (referred to
as mobbing).
Thus, it seems that the concept of intent to cause harm in the definition of both
bullying and cyberbullying is problematic. How can one determine intent to harm, a
mainstay of behavioral bullying and cyberbullying definitions, if the act of aggression is
an expression of unconscious or repressed desires? However, this story is incomplete.
What happens as the child grows up? Does the child continue to function at the same
immature level throughout his adult life, or is it possible that even children who
experience trauma can move to more adaptive defense mechanisms and awareness?
While Vaillant does not specifically discuss bullying in his work, he continues the
stories of people who developed immature defense mechanisms in childhood by
examining how defense mechanisms continue to change and mature through the adult
lifespan. One story bears a strong resemblance to the story above (Vaillant, 1977).
Like the boy in Waddel’s story, a man’s mother also discouraged any displays of
anger, causing him to disassociate from his feelings of aggression. When he became a
bomber in WWII, he was eventually overwhelmed by his repressed guilt and pain for the
damage he had inflicted. He at first tried to sublimate his pain through intense
spirituality, but eventually suffered a nervous breakdown. Though he received no
psychological or pharmacological treatment, he found a voice for his repressed anger and
guilt through writing poetry. This eventually allowed him to integrate long-repressed
emotions into his psyche, which he discussed with Vaillant in an interview (1977).
However, adults do not always develop such adaptive ways to heal trauma.
Bullying in the workplace demonstrates recurring patterns of aggression that extend into
adulthood. The workplace can mimic the dysfunctional family of origin system in which
the bullying cycle recurs. From research that demonstrates that certain types of
childhood trauma and behavioral patterns make their way into the adult workplace,
Cilliers (2012) and White (2004) offer the following psychodynamic lifecycle model of
the bully/victim relationship:
Stage 1: Embryonic
A bully and victim in potentia exist in the same system. Both seek relationships
in dysfunctional and symbiotic ways. The potential bully, unable to tolerate his
flaws, seeks to project them onto others. The potential victim, unable to tolerate
his rage, seeks to submit to a personality that embodies it.
Stage 2: Trigger
Through testing aggressive behaviors, the bully seeks and finds a victim to act as
a container for split-off emotions and desires. The victim experiences them on
behalf of the bully, creating a bond or sense of being needed. The bully will
attack and manipulate the victim. The victim may initially idealize the bully for
the embodiment of the victim’s own split-off energies.
Stage 3: Loyalty
The victim takes on the negative projections of the bully and attempts to please
rather than becoming conscious of the abuse. The bully escalates the attacks, as
the externalization of split energies gains him or her only temporary relief from
psychic discomfort.
Stage 4: Dance of Death
Recognizing his persecution, the victim becomes exhausted and disillusioned.
The bully continues to deny his aggressive behavior, and the victim eventually
blames himself for the persecution. The bully, unable to further persecute the
victim, may retreat into depression or find another target for projection. The
victim must rebuild his identities and boundaries, or fall victim to another bully.
The role of the system is crucial in facilitating the bully-victim cycle. "The
degree of psychological damage has been found to be related to the nature of
organisational support provided at the time of the bullying" (White, 2004). White
suggests that environments that encourage depersonalization of workspaces may tacitly
encourage bullying in the form of behavioral policing. Cilliers (2012) suggests that the
organization can behave similarly to the family system, by imbuing certain types of
people with good qualities and others with bad qualities, thus exaggerating the
functionality of the bully and the dysfunction of the victim.
...bullying consists of the very specific, complex and dynamic interpersonal and
organisational dynamics of splitting and projective identification, thus containing
the organisational pain in different objects where it does not belong. (Cilliers, p.9)
Objects, in this sense, are identified victims.
To summarize the psychodynamic perspective on bullying, the bully is a person
who has learned to expel negative feelings and desires through use of defenses such as
splitting and projection; the victim is a person who has learned to contain the negative
affects and desires of others through defenses such as repression or reaction formation. It
is important to recognize that within this dynamic, both people have developed only
partially functional tools for managing the difficulties of life. Even when emotions and
impulses are unconscious, there is no bully without pain or fear, just as there is no victim
without anger; the bully and victim have just learned to repress or project these emotions.
This model illuminates the reasons people engage in repetitive social aggression and
It is the system that allows this mutual psychodrama to play out in a repetitive,
cyclical, and unconscious way (Cilliers, 2012). The bullying dynamic can be reinforced
by disparate positional power between aggressor and target; the social norms of the
workplace may encourage abuse of positional power or exploitation of lower ranking
employees; and targets may genuinely fear of losing their source of income. This is a
distinguishing feature between traditional bullying and what is often mislabeled
cyberbullying. Many people exhibit maladaptive defense mechanisms in the online
world, but the system itself is based on entirely different power structures and rapidly
evolving social norms. Most importantly, online environments do not replicate the
hierarchical nature of home, school, and work. It may serve as an extension of these
worlds, but much online discourse takes place entirely outside of face-to-face systems.
Beyond Bullies and Victims: Ego Defense and Online Aggression
Projection, or perceiving one’s repressed feelings as enacted by someone else, is
one of the defense mechanisms that psychiatrist Vaillant outlines in his work on adaptive
ego defense (1993). People have the capacity and proclivity to mature beyond psychotic
and immature defense mechanisms, saying "...emotional growth necessitates taking
people inside from without" (Vaillant, 1993, p. 356). Through externalizing repressed
thoughts and desires by projecting them onto others, they may be recognized and re-
integrated into the core personality. The utilization of defense mechanisms is required
for repressed feelings, desires, and urges to become conscious and for maladaptive
behavior to be replaced with adaptive (Vaillant, 1993). Can this framework also explain
aggressive online behavior?
The Fallacy of Cyberbullying: Don’t Feed the Trolls
We return to the story of Lindy West and her troll in order to examine how
defense mechanisms play a role in online aggression. Trolling is defined as anonymous
online aggression intended to cause maximum negative response to the target for the
amusement of the troll (Balick, 2014, p. 96). West found herself unable to follow the
standard folk wisdom "Don’t feed the trolls" (ignore online aggressors), after she was
attacked by an anonymous person posing as her recently deceased father. She wrote an
article for Jezebel magazine titled "Don’t Ignore the Trolls. Feed Them Until They
Explode" (2013), expressing her feelings about the trolling she had experienced. The
next day, the troll contacted West and apologized. This exchange eventually led to West
and the troll’s participation in the segment on This American Life (Glass, 2015). During
their extended exchange, the troll expressed insight into his projected rage and
unconscious motivations for his attacks on West.
Self-awareness on the part of an aggressor is conspicuously absent in literature on
traditional bullying and cyberbullying. Bullies are characterized as consciously or
unconsciously aggressive; they are not recalcitrant or introspective. The psychodynamic
model of bullying likewise allows for little consciousness on the part of either party.
Given existing definitions of bullying, is West’s troll actually a bully? This is not to deny
the fact that he harassed and abused West, but to point out that his demonstrated ability to
examine and express his inner motivations is not accounted for in descriptions of bullies.
Perhaps examining the dynamics of online aggression demands a broader scope--one that
leaves room for a wide range of behaviors and the possibility of transformation and
The troll seemed to use West’s feedback to examine his own happiness,
motivation, and relationship with himself: moving from projecting on West to relating to
her; moving from seeing her as an object to subject. West claims that the experience
changed her attitude towards trolls, helping her recognize their pain: “It’s hard to feel
hurt or frightened when you’re flooded with pity. And that, in turn, has made it easier for
me to keep talking in the face of a mob roaring for my silence” (West, 2015). The
experience encouraged her to continue to stand up to online aggressors and to encourage
others to do so.
West’s story highlights several fallacies of the bullying model when applied to
online aggression. Trolling, like cyberbullying, has multiple definitions that depend on
the norms of specific subcultures and communities (Phillips, 2015). Another set of
authors describes it as "the attempt to hurt, humiliate, annoy, or provoke in order to elicit
an emotional response for one’s own enjoyment" (Rafferty & Vander Ven, 2014). These
descriptions generally fit within the cyberbullying category of denigration (Langos,
2014), yet they ignore the agency and behavior of the target. Targets of aggression are
not necessarily victims—while psychologically they may feel the same effects as a victim
of bullying in the short term, the online environment may afford them more opportunities
to respond in a variety of aggressive and nonaggressive ways.
West benefitted from engaging her aggressor, just as her aggressor benefitted
from being confronted with the outcome of his aggression. However, participants are
often encouraged to ignore or rise above aggression: "Don’t feed the trolls." This can
create a perception of disproportionate power in the aggressor and helplessness on the
part of the target. West, however, deconstructs the idea of ignoring online harassment:
"I'm sick of being told that I'm navigating my own abuse wrong" (2013). She realized
that being a blogger with a large, public platform, gave her the power to respond to
aggression that she had previously ignored.
Social norms, such as in the case of "Don’t feed the trolls," change rapidly in the
online world. The nature of textual, asynchronous communication creates a need for
disclosure and a sense of vulnerability that does not parallel normal face-to-face
interactions. Perhaps West’s story was interesting to NPR because it was unusual.
Adaptive behavioral change may seem non-normative when compared to heavily covered
stories about online abuse such as #gamergate, which fall into more easily identified
bully/victim schemas. However, these existing schemas may prevent researchers from
understanding the complexity of online aggression and its outcomes.
Applying Vaillant’s ego defense mechanism scale, rather than an existing
bullying model, to West’s story allows a different set of dynamics to emerge. West’s
troll at first used delusional projection (expressing wishes for West’s death) and acting
out (posing as a disappointed father from beyond the grave) to mediate his emotions.
These are psychotic and immature defense mechanisms, respectively. After his
confrontation with West, he demonstrated altruism (publicly discussing his behavior and
making amends), an adaptive defense mechanism. In turn, West described moving from
isolation (ignoring trolls and their effect on her) and displacement (directing her
accumulated ire at trolls at one particular troll), both neurotic defense mechanisms; to
altruism (publicly discussing her reaction with her troll and recognizing that those who
harass her may also suffer).
Table 3
Online Behavior and Ego Defense Mechanisms in L. West Account
Ego Defense Categories
Ego Defense Mechanisms
Delusional projection
Death threats by email or
online message
Acting out
Impersonating family or
friend online for the purpose
of humiliation
"Don’t feed the trolls" –
ignoring online aggression
Lashing out at one troll for
accumulated behavior of
Making amends, helping
others who have been hurt,
sharing experience of online
Note: Adapted from Glass (2015).
Certainly, both parties initially seemed to fit the bully and victim roles: The troll
unknowingly acted out his pain and low self-esteem, while West felt attacked and
victimized. If West had ignored the troll, these roles would have solidified. Because she
responded, West, and by extension those who read her articles or listened to the radio
show, experienced something distinctly different from a bullying situation.
It differed from the behavioral model of cyberbullying because
1. The troll and West had equal power to speak without fear of structural reprisal;
there was no power imbalance between them.
2. After West responded to the troll, he ceased harassing her. There was no
repetition of his actions.
3. The intent to cause harm is debatable. When the troll was unconscious of the
extent of harm he was causing, he repeated it. However, when West publicly
responded, he ceased to wish her harm.
The interaction between West and her aggressor also deviates from the
psychodynamic model of bullying; while the troll initially engaged in projection and
acting out, West did not idealize the troll, nor did she internalize his projections. Rather
than subsequently finding another target for his unconscious desires, the now former troll
engaged in reparative interaction with West. Were we to insist on applying the
psychodynamic bullying model to this online interaction, it would minimize both the
troll’s psychological distress and capacity for growth and West’s agency and ability to
experience and express her anger. However, when removed from the bullying model,
ego defense theory helps explain the dance of aggression and adaptation between West
and her troll while also demonstrating how it deviates from the dynamic of bullying
within a contained system.
Psychodynamic Processes in Cyberspace
Cyber-psychologists have speculated that the online world is ripe for
psychodynamic processes such as transference, projection, and identification (Balick,
2014; Suler, 2004). Suler’s article (2004) coined the term online disinhibition effect as an
explanation for the breaking of taboos in online interaction. Suler posited that several
aspects of online interaction result in greater self-disclosure and non-normative behavior.
These include dissociative anonymity (p. 322); the ability to act without having one’s
identity known, leading to detachment from one’s effects on others and invisibility (p.
322); lack of physical proximity/visual cues. Solipsistic introjection (p. 323) allows the
internalization of interactions through reading the words of others in one’s head, while
dissociative imagination (p. 323) permits one to disconnect one’s online behavior from
offline behavior.
Asynchronicity (Suler, 2004, p. 232) refers to interactions that take place at
varying times and the minimization of status and authority—the lack of structural power
online—contribute to the effect as well. This paints a picture of an anarchic internet rife
with dangerous dissociation. The concepts within this article hit a nerve with scholars
attempting to make sense of a new social sphere with fluid and sometimes disturbing
social norms. It is still frequently cited in academic and media sources. However, some
theorists differ with Suler’s claims of the distortive nature of online interaction.
The lack of visual or face-to-face (FTF) cues may create a need for greater self-
disclosure to reduce ambiguity in online communication (Johnson, 2006). In other
words, the online environment does not so much encourage internal cognitive distortion
through anonymity as it increases self-expression and inquisitiveness. Johnson also
points out that anonymity is not what it seems; the cost of creating a pseudonym online is
the disclosure of personal information to the website owner(s), creating
"pseudoanonymity" (p.89).
Relational psychoanalysis has been used to differentiate between online
interactions that objectify others and those that increase connection and intimacy between
people (Balick, 2012, 2014):
I argue that our engagement in the virtual world is fundamentally tied to both our
motivation to relate and our desire to discover and be discovered. The nature of
the ease of access to the virtual world both enables and obstructs a variety of ways
of relating. (Balick, 2014, p. 122)
However, Balick also describes a “ghosted middle” (p. 124)—the identity created
through the compilation of random information by search engines such as Google. He
describes how a therapeutic relationship was altered when his client ran an online search
on his name. This created a crisis of trust for the client who was psychologically
triggered by the information he found. Balick had to work through a crisis in the
therapeutic relationship that could not have occurred in the same fashion before the
advent of search aggregates such as Google.
This story highlights how the online and face-to-face worlds are not discrete.
They interpenetrate each other in surprising and unexpected ways. The relational
psychoanalytic approach to online behavior concerns the subject-object relationship
online (Balick, 2014). What causes people to objectify others, using them as targets for
fantasy and defensive behaviors? What increases authentic relationships between people
online? Which aspects are out of our control? This richer look at the complexity of
online interaction neither downplays its risks nor overlooks its potential.
A Compelling Need for Developmental and Psychodynamic Research
By deconstructing the assumptions that underlie the study of cyberbullying and
examining how face-to-face bullying research has been applied to research on cyber-
aggression, it is possible to see how deeply these models have affected the study of online
aggression. This, in turn, influences the development of interventions and legislation to
protect victims of cyberbullying, as is currently understood.
Resources for cyberbullying online highlight many of the weaknesses of
cyberbullying prevention that are predicated upon face-to-face bullying. Netsmartz
(n.d.), a resource website for parents, children, and teens, urges parents to tell children to
block and report all forms of online aggression, "Tell your child not to respond to rude e-
mails, messages, and comments." This does not teach children or teens to discern
between peer aggression that they may be able to respond to effectively, and dangerous
predation by adults.
A U.S. government video at (ASPA, n.d.) says that a child
experiencing cyberbullying should block or ignore the aggressor. It then, however,
suggests that a child who witnesses cyberbullying should come to the target’s aid. This
assumes that the original target has no agency, transferring that agency to either another
child or an adult. This makes little sense given the complexity of online aggression;
cyber harassment amongst children can range from minor disparagement by other
children to extreme threats of violence or sexual predation by adults. Should the child
react the same way to both types of attackers, or perhaps attempt direct confrontation
with the former, but turn to an adult for the latter?
The video also indicates an assumption of victimhood for the target while
ignoring the psychological health of the aggressor, who may be a child in need of help or
treatment. These instructions assume that there is a significant power differential
between target and agent, which is not necessarily the case. It further contradicts itself by
suggesting that while the target cannot respond safely, a child bystander can. This makes
more sense in a face-to-face bullying context, where the aggressor may have superior
social power or be physically stronger. A bystander may then have the ability to face
down a larger or more socially dominant aggressor, reducing the impact on the target.
Online, the target, bystander, and aggressor have equal opportunities to interact. When
researchers base cyber-aggression models on face-to-face bullying research, they may
misread the power dynamics of the online environment, resulting in inadequate
Psychological research that examines the unconscious motivation of participants
in online conflict has the potential to shed much needed light on dynamics of online
aggression by putting them into the larger context of human need, desires, and
motivations. Online ethnographic research provides insight into the unique (and not so
unique) norms of online cultures that are distinct from, yet intertwined with, offline
culture. Simply put, the expression of feelings and desires are constrained in very
different ways online and offline. Both psychodynamic and ethnographic inquiries are
already contributing to understanding how the internet affects individuals and social
systems. Further research of this kind is vital to understanding the psychological health
of individual participants in online aggression and identifying the new (and old)
sociological patterns that are emerging through continued use and adoption of online
communication tools.
While the study of online aggression is relatively new, the term cyberbullying has
dominated both media reporting and scholarship as the primary description for a wide
range of phenomena. Existing definitions of cyberbullying are both too broad—they
cover far more behaviors than would be ascribed to face to face bullying, and too
restrictive—the expectations of clear bully and victim roles embedded within current
behavioral and psychodynamic models oversimplify the complexity of online interaction
and the fluidity of online personae.
In the eyes of researchers and reporters, the roles of bully and victim have become
archetypes inhabited by people enacting and receiving aggressive behaviors. These are
simplistic reductions of the complexity of aggressive human behavior, particularly on the
internet where there are limited parallels with face-to-face bullying. Perhaps it is easier
to make sense of online aggression by applying these familiar schemas, but at what cost?
The basic nature of human aggression does not change between face to face and online
environments, but the distinct differences in power, proximity, and structure profoundly
influences how aggression is enacted, received, and responded to.
The online social system has distinctly different power structures than traditional
bullying environments such as schools and workplaces. This allows targets of aggressive
acts online to respond in varied public and private ways. The term "cyber aggression" is
more appropriate to describe the range of online aggressive behaviors, as it does not limit
them to behaviors that can be classified as bullying. However, more research is needed
to explore the immature and maladaptive psychodynamics of online discourse. This begs
the central research question of this dissertation:
What types of ego defensive behavior occur in aggressive online forum
It is equally important to draw attention to adaptive and reparative outcomes of
online aggression and conflict. Research that examines both the psychological dynamics
of the individual participants and the social-technological system in which they are
interacting is vital to understanding how online aggression fits into the larger context of
human development.
Because research into online aggression in social media is still new, this study
used mixed methods to examine the psychodynamics of online aggression. Archival data
were collected from the internet (public online forum conversations). Qualitative
techniques informed by discourse analysis and applied psychoanalysis were used to
identify and interpret ego defense mechanisms in conversations on social media.
Descriptive statistics were used to examine the proportions of these mechanisms on and
across the social media platforms from which the sample is derived.
Problem Statement
As discussed in Chapter 2, the majority of existing literature on cyber aggression
focuses on cyberbullying amongst children, teens, and young adults. Cyberbullying
definitions, derived from face-to-face bullying research, create myopic studies that often
ignore the unique social systems dynamics online. The internet as a social system is
unique; the basic nature of the human personality is not. New research is needed to
integrate existing knowledge of fundamental human motivation and development with a
more detailed, analytical approach to online interaction unencumbered by research
developed for face-to-face social systems.
Research Question
The study examined how online commenters engage with each other and how
their behavior can be interpreted using ego defense mechanisms as an analytical
framework. The research question was,
What types of ego defensive behavior occur in aggressive online forum
Research Design
An analytical framework based on Vaillant’s work on defense mechanisms
provides the foundation for discourse analysis of the sample. Once the sample was
coded, patterns were identified and interpreted. Descriptive statistics revealed the
proportions of specific defense mechanisms and levels of adaptiveness across social
media platforms.
The development of this framework stemmed from an online conversation on
YouTube in which I participated, referenced in Chapter 1. My discomfort upon realizing
that my behavior fell into the same category of immature defense as the person with
whom I had argued, led me to look much more deeply into the psychodynamics of
aggressive online conversations. I searched for a systematic way to avoid bias towards
statements with which I agreed and against those with which with I disagreed
(confirmation bias). I needed a way to examine the emotions and motivations of all
participants regardless of my relationship to the topic.
Development of Analytical Framework
I first worked with a limited data set to determine if Vaillant’s ego defense
mechanism spectrum could be systematically applied to online discussions. I examined a
broad range of defense mechanisms and considered how they manifest in online conflict.
Ego defense mechanisms fall into four broad categories: psychotic, immature,
neurotic, and adaptive (Vaillant, 1992). Examining the specific defense mechanisms and
their level of adaptation provides insight into the function of online conflict in social
interaction and into individual happiness with one’s own being. See Table 3 for brief
examples. The first four columns are derived from Vaillant’s definitions (1992).
After developing the analytical framework, I coded a small data set (Table 4). It
was necessary to code each sentence (or phrase—punctuation is variable on social media)
of each comment separately for behavior, cognitive distortion (when indicated), and ego
defense mechanism. Below is a brief excerpt from the analysis. The initial comment is
shown in the white cells; the response comment is in the gray cells. The sample was
retrieved from the comments on a Huffington Post article on plus-sized model Tess
Holliday (Bahadur, 2015).
Table 4
Sample Coding
Defense Mechanism
Hmm...she takes fabulous
but all I see from a distance is
a woman who is probably
going to end up with a myriad
of health problems as time
goes by.
If she thinks she looks
fabulous that's just great, if
other people are into her
bodacious bod that's great too
approving, judging
she WILL pay the price as she
gets older.
I've seen women of all sizes
run marathons, cycle, power
lift etc.
I've also know women of all
sized to eat well balanced
diets, have great blood sugar
levels and low cholesterol.
Weight does not equal health.
Your concern for her health is
just a passive agreasive [sic]
way of putting this "fat girl" in
her place.
Jealously [sic] doesn't look
good on anyone no matter
what your size is.
Table 4: Sample Coding
From this small sample, it seems that the first commenter is denigrating the
subject of the article for her appearance, but is not directly aware of her prejudice as she
rationalizes it with predictive (distorted) comments about the subject’s health. The
second commenter at first defends the subject, but by the end, her comment is clearly
personalizing the first commenter’s judgments—responding as if she herself had been
directly attacked. Commenters’ intentions seem to shift or vacillate within one burst of
writing, moving in and out of different distortions. However, each only demonstrates one
defense mechanism overall.
I also examined overall themes in discourse. Comments were kept in the order
that they occur online so patterns could be examined across multiple samples. After
coding the sample for ego defense mechanisms, I looked for larger patterns and themes
such as
1. What is the most common level of adaptation amongst commenters?
2. What specific defense mechanisms occurred most frequently?
3. What types of language and discourse were associated with the most common
4. What was the overall proportion of adaptive, neurotic, immature, and psychotic
comments, and does this vary across social media platforms?
The sample consists of archival data in the form of existing online conversations.
These documents contain discourse about a linked topic (body acceptance) from three
different environments relating to a recent controversy in the online body positive
community. This allowed examination of the same topic across three different online
environments, so levels of defense could be compared and contrasted across
environments on the same topic or issue.
Sample Source
A disparaging video titled Dear Fat People went viral in September of 2015
(Arbour, 2015) and then widely discussed in the body positive community and in
mainstream media (Boone, 2015; Bussel, 2015; Edelman, 2015; Ross, 2015; Thore, 2015,
West, 2015). This study’s three samples were drawn from the public comment forums on
commentary pieces by body positive activists who addressed the video: an online article
from The Guardian by Lindy West (2015), an Instagram post by Tess Holiday (2015),
and a video on YouTube by Whitney Thore (2015). The comments were, when possible,
arranged by date, and then digitally cut and pasted into the qualitative analysis program
nVivo on my home computer, which is protected by a secure firewall.
Sample Selection
This study examined social media reaction to a social media event. While
corporate media plays a role in propagating viral media, the discussion of this topic was
driven by online communities. This sample reflects the dominant role of social media
participation in driving narratives around body acceptance. While corporate body
positive campaigns such as the new line of curvy Barbie dolls (Mattel, n.d.) and the Lane
Bryant #imnoangel (Lane Bryant, n.d.) hashtag are very public, they are reactive to the
body positive social media movement rather than proactive. Likewise, while celebrities
and politicians participate in social media, this study does not attempt to examine the
relationship between a famous person and his or her public. It is concerned with the
psychological needs and motivations demonstrated in the specific samples studied.
Data Organization. Each social media outlet has different ways of organizing
and monitoring public discussion. YouTube and Instagram rely mostly on moderation by
users; a user can report content as inappropriate and it may be removed by someone
within the organization or based on the number of times it was reported by other users.
The companies may ban users who are frequently reported for abuse. Sometimes the
original posters on social media can block or remove posts if they wish. This may vary,
as social media applications are updated frequently, as are their terms of use. All three
samples were organized from most recent to oldest before the data were extracted.
YouTube. YouTube allows the user to choose “Newest first” or “Top
comments.” YouTube allows subthreads, where commenters respond to one another in
an indented section of the page. In order to extract a sample from as close to the release
of the original video as possible, I had to scroll down to the bottom of the page and
choose “Load more” hundreds of times. Interestingly, each time I returned to this sample
during the pilot, the text at the bottom of the comments was different. Because of this, I
chose a subthread that consisted of 52 comments that started around the time of the
release of the video in August of 2015 and continued for about a month. This data
seemed representative of the discourse that took place around the time of the release since
it was impossible to determine the exact start of the comments.
YouTube can be difficult to study from a discourse perspective because users can
change their usernames whenever they like. Therefore, a comment may refer to a
username that is no longer in the thread. This did not affect my ability to examine the
comments for defense mechanisms but made following the discourse challenging at
Instagram. Instagram does not provide dates on comments, only how long ago
they were posted (example: 30wks). There is no subthreading, so users may respond to
specific users by including their username with an “@” sign (@username) in their posts.
Instagram comments are only displayed chronologically, so I chose the first 50 posted
comments. However, many of these comments were in response to a commenter who
had since deleted his or her account. Again, this did not impede my ability to analyze the
data but did create challenges in examining the flow of the discourse.
The Guardian. The Guardian sample was the easiest to read and organize. The
reader can choose whether to read comments from newest or oldest first, and can choose
to expand or collapse all subthreads. This made it simple to copy and paste the first 50
comments. However, the organization polices the website, and several comments read,
“This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn't abide by our community
standards. Replies may also be deleted. For more detail see our FAQs.” These
comments were not counted as part of the 50 selected comments. Since this discourse
was to some degree censored, it may have been less representative than the other two
Language. A few comments were in languages other than English. I excluded
these from the sample.
I did not interact in the comment forums and only used published discourse that
are publicly available and viewable. My data and analysis are stored on my password-
protected home computer accessible only to me. All usernames are redacted in the study.
The pilot data were derived from the first 35 comments of the Instagram sample
(Holiday, 2015). Certain patterns emerged that necessitated adjusting the coding
technique for the remainder of the study.
The first level of coding is behavior, or “What is this person doing?” The
commenter may be agreeing with someone, contradicting them, attacking another
commenter, or telling a story. I found that as I coded the comments, it became necessary
to create many new codes in order to map the varied terrain of each comment. Some
comments were very simple—others were long, contradictory, or complex. This level of
coding was much richer than anticipated and contributed a great deal to my ability to
assign an ego defense mechanism to each comment. Engaging in a more creative,
detailed coding process at this first level also allowed for more emotional distance from
the subject matter, which was often quite inflammatory. I added many codes that I had
not anticipated before the pilot, particularly ones associated with adaptive behaviors.
One such code was testifying.
Testifying was applied when commenters seemed to be sharing an experience in
the forum that had an inspirational or transformational tone:
I love myself my husband, children and grandchildren love me. I have
learned to accept myself in a society that doesn't accept me. (Instagram, 2015)
It's easier to change your lifestyle when you love yourself. Trust me I know.
(Instagram, 2015)
Adaptive comments were difficult to isolate when the majority of the discourse was
negative. Additional descriptive codes allowed for deeper examination of discourse
during the coding process. These additions helped add depth and nuance to the analysis
of the entire sample.
The middle level of coding as cognitive distortion, or ways in which people
exaggerate or alter reality. In the pilot data, a majority of the comments coded for
distortion (not all comments show cognitive distortion) were coded as personalizing.
Personalizing is the assumption that general comments or comments directed at others
apply to oneself (Burns, 1999). When responding to an inflammatory comment about the
original poster, many commenters responded as if the comment had been about them:
you're a bully. Do you *really* believe that without your harsh words fat people
are blissfully unaware of their fatness and the health risks associated with it.
Really? (Instagram, 2015)
We really don't need you bullying us... we do plenty of it to ourselves thanks to
people like you and comments like yours. (Instagram, 2015)
The main defense mechanisms coded in the pilot were Projection and
Displacement. The difficulties described in following the flow of the discourse, and the
richness of data available through coding demonstrated a need to focus primarily on the
topography of the defense mechanisms and the behaviors that accompany them, rather
than on the trajectory of each conversation.
The study uses Online Psychodynamic Discourse Analysis, a new approach that
includes Discourse Analysis, Applied Psychoanalysis, and descriptive statistics.
Discourse Analysis
Discourse Analysis is the examination and interpretation of conversation,
traditionally spoken, although other forms of communication such as non-verbal sounds
and signals are also recorded and analyzed. A well-known form of this method is Critical
Discourse Analysis, which is concerned with how human interaction reveals enactment of
structural power and hegemony across social contexts (Bernard, 2012). For example, it
explores how discourse provides insight into medical practices by examining studies on
different groups, such as the attitudes of doctors who administer electroshock therapy or
studies on breast cancer support group participants (Shaw & Bailey 2009). These studies
examine how Discourse Analysis interrogates the ways in which the hegemonic medical
industry controls patient narratives. Discourse Analysis can examine micro-, meso-, and
macro-phenomena and unearth hidden assumptions and norms; it is concerned with how
meaning is made on personal, interpersonal, and structural levels.
Discourse Analysis has also been used in both psychodynamic research
(Anderson, 2002) and online research (James & Nahl, 2014). It can provide insight into
the therapeutic relationship but is not yet a common approach online. On the internet,
Discourse Analysis is often used with a communications theory foundation (Jones, Chik,
& Hafner, 2015) rather than psychology theory. Online communications studies are more
concerned with modeling communication patterns than understanding the feelings and
motivations of online participants.
This study is concerned with how online participants make meaning of existing
cultural narratives around controversial issues—in this case, fat body acceptance.
Discourse Analysis interrogates the structural and social norms that influence how people
communicate online. It can also be used to examine the basic human needs and fears that
drive commenters to provoke, escalate, or reduce conflict through aggressive online
Applied Psychoanalysis
Aaron Balick (2014) and John Suler (2004), referenced in Chapter 2, are
psychologists and researchers who use Applied Psychoanalysis to analyze the
psychodynamics of online interaction. Originally, Applied Psychoanalysis used
psychoanalytic techniques to examine fictional works and characters (Baudry, 1984).
More recent research reimagines it as a way of understanding the ways people use social
media to meet emotional needs, connect to others, and be known (Balick, 2014). The
analytical framework used in this study has clear similarities, as it applies a
psychodynamic analytical framework to existing documents.
Descriptive Statistics
Researchers can fall prey to confirmation bias in online aggression due to the
excessive attention paid by corporate media to cybercrime and online hate crimes. They
may be conditioned to ignore adaptive or neutral online behavior in favor of aggression
(Balick, 2014; Olweus, 2012). Descriptive statistics show the proportions of the four
levels of adaptation within each forum and across all three selections. For example, there
may be a significant proportion of immature defensive comments on YouTube, but a
larger proportion of neurotic comments on Facebook. It is also vital to examine what
proportion of comments should be categorized as aggression at all, as discussed in my
pilot summary.
Research Bias
The general topic of this sample, body acceptance (also known as body positive,
BOPO, or fat acceptance) is an area of which I am a frequent participant. However, I did
not participate in the forums from which I created my sample, although I am familiar
with many of the issues discussed in similar forums. I guarded against bias in several
ways. Iterative interaction with the data allowed me to examine my interpretations, as
did compartmentalized formatting of the data (Creswell, 2009). Each layer of coding and
interpretation—behavior, cognitive distortion, defense mechanism, and broader
qualitative analysis—allowed me to re-engage with the previous layers and examine my
assumptions. I kept a reflexive journal in the form of a password-protected blog in order
to record my thoughts and feelings as the data were coded and interpreted (LaBlanca,
2011). My student reader provided peer debriefing (Creswell, 2009) and my chair also
provided feedback on my thinking by reading my reflexive journal.
Assumptions, Limitations, and Delimitations
This study uses a psychodynamic framework, which assumes that human
behavior is influenced by unconscious feelings and needs. These can be identified and
examined through observation of speech and behavior. Applied psychoanalysis assumes
that ego defense behaviors are identifiable through analysis of language.
This study also assumes that while much current research contains bias towards
finding online behavior antisocial or maladaptive, the level of adaptiveness of online
behavior is basically consistent with face-to-face behavior.
The sample is derived from online discourse stemming from issues concerning the
Body Positive community. Sample discourse is extracted from online forums under
posts, videos, or articles by prominent BOPO activists. While issues of structural
inequality and intersectionality are certainly germane to the discussion of online
aggression in the BOPO community, this study specifically addresses psychodynamic
motivations for engaging in aggressive discourse, an identified gap in research of online
aggression. Examining intrapsychic functions adds nuance to existent research on
interpersonal and structural (Phillips, 2015) aspects of online discourse.
Because this study is archival, demographic information is extremely limited.
While some online commenters may be identifiable by gender, race, or age, based on the
picture and username they choose, none of this information is verifiable. Additionally,
the source material for this study is articles and posts by people who present as Caucasian
women. At the time of this study, it was difficult to find people of color in the online
body positive community with a large enough following to generate enough comments to
study on this particular topic (reaction to the Dear Fat People video). While there is
general demographic information available on specific social media platforms, it may not
be relevant to the specific samples used for this study. As a result, this study will not be
able to generalize about the prevalence of online defensive behaviors using information
such as gender, race, or age.
My original analytical framework allowed me to conduct discourse analysis from
a psychodynamic perspective. I used descriptive statistics to examine the proportion of
types of aggression and defense across the sample and to avoid confirmation bias. This
study provides a new way to use psychoanalytical tools to analyze online discourse. This
approach can provide insight into why people engage in aggressive speech online, and the
ways in which it may be developmental rather than pathological. The data consistently
showed a concentration of activity in the neurotic and immature defense categories, and
several instances of mature or adaptive comments.
This chapter details analysis of 150 online comments across three samples of 50
comments each. It explores overall levels of adaptation through examination of prevalent
defense mechanisms. It also examines the similarities and differences between the three
samples, both in tone and coding composition.
Thematically, the discourse centered primarily on the health and social
acceptability of fatness and the ethics of shaming or trolling people for being fat.
Because this is not a thematic analysis study or a critical theory study, it is important to
recognize that the application of defense mechanisms to aggressive online exchanges was
not limited to either proponents or opponents of body positivity. This study examines
adaptiveness in online discourse, not the validity of any particular argument or position.
Out of the 150 comments, 139 were coded with defense mechanisms. Some
comments were too brief to provide enough material for psychological analysis.
However, all 150 comments were coded for behavior, and a majority were coded for
cognitive distortion. This chapter will focus mainly on predominant defense mechanisms
and how they are presented in the discourse.
Defense Mechanisms Demonstrated in Total Sample
Table 5 describes each defense mechanism coded in the study, grouped by level
of adaptation from most adaptive to least. Numbers in parenthesis refer to the number of
incidents of codes in each category. These descriptions are adapted from Vaillant’s
classifications and descriptions of ego defense mechanisms (1992). The psychotic (least
adaptive/mature category) is not included because no comments in the sample were
coded at the psychotic defense mechanism level.
Table 5
Defense Mechanisms Coded in Full Sample
Level of
Description of Behavior
Psychological Function
Mature (17)
Humor (10)
Playful, non-harmful joking.
discomfort/tension for self
and others.
Suppression (4)
Stoicism, looking for positive
aspects of negative
Postpones discomfort
until more appropriate
Altruism (2)
Empathy, philanthropy.
Helping others with similar
Creates partial
gratification through
experience of helping
others with similar
Sublimation (1)
Expression of affect through
substitution in hobbies or
healthy relationships.
Heals trauma through
desires/emotions to a
healthy substitute.
Displacement (42)
Redirect feelings/desires
towards less important thing or
person (object) than original
source. Can include harmful
humor, phobias, and prejudice.
Allows partial expression
of repressed material
through redirection.
Isolation (12)
Verbal expression of strong
feelings or desires without
experience of them.
Partial but unconscious
expression of feelings or
Creating reassuring
explanations for harmful
Partial but unconscious
expression of feelings or
Similar to Isolation - attention
to minutiae, argumentation
while avoiding underlying
feelings or desires.
Partial but unconscious
expression of feelings or
Repression (1)
Avoiding thoughts while
experiencing associated
Partial experience of
repressed feelings or
feelings or desires. Memory
lapse or naiveté.
Projection (45)
Attributing one’s own feeling
or impulses to another.
Includes prejudice, injustice
collecting, devaluation, and
Indirect but unconscious
expression of repressed
feelings or desires.
Acting Out (3)
Extreme expressions of
emotion or behavior without
regard for consequences.
Temporary discharge of
Dissociation (1)
Refusal to take responsibility
for behavior, over activity to
avoid anxiety,
Temporary avoidance of
repressed feelings and
Aggression (1)
Hurting oneself or engaging in
self-destructive behaviors to
indirectly harm others.
Clowning to get attention and
avoid conflict.
Indirect but unconscious
expression of repressed
feelings or desires.
Psychotic (0)
Note. Instagram, 2015; The Guardian, 2015; YouTube, 2015; N = 139
Overall, the predominant defense mechanisms were Projection (immature) at 32% and
Displacement (neurotic) at 30%. See Figure 1:
Figure 1. Distribution of defense mechanisms across full sample (N=139).
However, despite the slightly larger proportion of Projection to Displacement,
comments indicating a neurotic level of defense were dominant, with a smaller
proportion of immature comments, and a small number of adaptive comments. There
were no psychotic comments. See Figure 2:
Figure 2. Distribution of defense mechanisms by category across full sample (N=139).
Discourse Associated with Predominant Defense Mechanisms
The most common defense mechanisms across the three samples were Projection,
Displacement, Isolation, and Rationalization. Please note that online discourse tends to
be raw and often includes creative spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Online discourse
also sometimes includes profanity and other kinds of offensive language. All such
aspects of the quoted discourse are directly from the sample. I have inserted explanations
in brackets for common online acronyms.
Projection, an immature defense, was the most common defense mechanism
across all three samples. Comments coded as projection include
listen kiddo, if you really cared you would have called us land whales. What you
are doing has been done and it doesn't work. You are a silly mean nasty little
girl...We really don't need you bullying us... we do plenty of it to ourselves thanks
to people like you and comments like yours. (Instagram, 2015)
And honestly, let's face it the reason you're saying that someone should not be
body positive is because you're probably is not body positive yourself, you really
unhappy and trying to make others people unhappy like you, and because I
actually care for the people around me, I strongly advise you go after professional
help, especially if you can't realize that you're unhappy yourself, hope you can
grow as human being. (Instagram, 2015)
Comparing sport with being a lazy, feckless greedy, self-entitled fatty? Give your
head a good wobble. Might use a few calories. (The Guardian, 2015)
You're the one that's going to be wheezing your way into cardiac arrest before
your grandkids (if you make it that far) are out of elementary school. Being FAT
is NOT OK. It's bad for you, it's bad for the people that have to put up with your
huge, stinking ass everyday, it's bad for the population in general because you
lazy fat fucks insist on telling other fat fucks that it's OK to be fat. When it totally
isnt'. Stop making fucking excuses and get up off your ass and go for a walk
instead of posting on youtube. (YouTube, 2015)
He's just a stuck up asshole who doesn't think before he speaks. An if he does he
probably has issues.. I'm not taking it personal. (YouTube, 2015)
No. I said My body doesn't Effect YOU! It effects me. And who the fuck do you
think you are to say m not doing anything about my weight.. YOU DON"T
FUCKING KNOW ME!! Piece of shit!! (YouTube, 2015)
Common behaviors in comments coded as projection are contradicting,
disparaging, defending, and attacking. Common cognitive distortions are
overgeneralizing and personalizing. Vaillant (1992) associates prejudice, devaluation,
and injustice-collecting with projection. Phrases like "lazy, feckless greedy, self-entitled
fatty" and "you fat lazy fucks" indicate both overgeneralization and prejudice against
fatness. Similarly, phrases such as "people like you" and "he probably has issues"
indicate devaluation.
Displacement, a neurotic defense, was the second most commonly coded defense
mechanism. Neurotic defenses distort reality in order to cope with taboo or traumatic
feelings and desires, but to a lesser degree than immature defenses. Vaillant (1993)
describes them as "less intrusive to others" (p. 59) than immature defenses such as
Projection. In the samples, Displacement behaviors were often associated with more
generalized prejudice or judgment than projection:
you put it perfectly. I think that's the most frustrating part of all these "health
advocates". I would be shocked to meet any person who isn't aware of the health
risks associated with being overweight. To me, "health advocacy" with regards to
weight is simply a way to fat shame without feeling guilty about it. It's a way to
pat yourself on the back, while bullying people at the same time. (Instagram,
EXACTLY. Spouting "helpfulness" when "help" has not been requested: Pushy
and presumptuous, not helpful. Negative, hateful, and mean commentary
ALWAYS unacceptable. (Instagram, 2015)
It [obesity] shouldn't be mocked and ridiculed either. Especially not by people old
enough to know better. (The Guardian, 2015)
They all sound like pretty healthy endeavours, unlike eating your body weight in
doughnuts. (The Guardian, 2015)
I'm not usually one to criticize people for issues of individual freedom or
indulgence, but when a group such as the obese try to carve out a space in society
immune from criticism, they deserve a friendly fuck no. (The Guardian, 2015)
The video was dreadful. I'm no fan of the "anti-shaming" SJW [social justice
warrior] nonsense that Lindy West and her cohorts come out with, but that video
was rubbish. Maybe someone should start shaming plastic unfunny blondes? (The
Guardian, 2015)
If you want a better and healthier future you cant bully people into it. You cant
bully people into changing how they if you want a better and healthier future you
cant bully people into it.That's like telling a black person to be white. Yes I have a
disease that made me gain a lot of weight at 14. The disease I have makes me
grow cyst and I have one in my thyroid. No that doesn't make it ok but I am trying
to change that. (YouTube, 2015)
Behaviors associated with Displacement in the sample included contradicting,
defending, judging, and disparaging. Disparaging behaviors were less personalized and
more generalized in the comments coded with Displacement than those coded with
Projection. They tended to avoid naming specific people or using the second person,
except as the general "you." For example, the following comment shames those that
make fun of the obese, but doesn’t attack a specific person: "It [obesity] shouldn't be
mocked and ridiculed either. Especially not by people old enough to know better."
The main distortions associated with Displacement were overgeneralizing,
personalizing, and filtering (focusing on some information and ignoring other
information). Vaillant (1992) describes features of Displacement as wit (cruel humor),
sarcasm, prejudice, and phobias. For example, "They all sound like pretty healthy
endeavours, unlike eating your body weight in doughnuts" displays prejudice (making
assumptions about other’s eating habits) and wit (using disparaging exaggeration as a
form of humor).
Isolation and Rationalization
Two lesser but still significant codes were Isolation and Rationalization, each at
8.6% of the defense mechanism codes. Isolation, in the sample, tended to take the form
of rational sounding arguments that also contained emotionally loaded
material. Rationalization is creating self-serving explanations for destructive behavior
(Vaillant, 1992). Both are neurotic defense mechanisms. These comments were coded
for Isolation:
I don't shame anyone but, I do not promote obesity and anorexia but if you are
one I don't say a word (Instagram, 2015)
Obesity usually is the result of consuming more resources than one's fair share
and almost certainly will result in consuming still more resources of one's fair
share in terms of health care etc. And of course.... they smell (The Guardian,
The first commenter contradicts him or herself by claiming to "not promote" certain
bodies but also claims not to take any negative action, while at the same time posting this
bias on the internet. The second commenter makes an argument about fat people’s use of
resources, but ends with a comment, "they smell" that could be interpreted as prejudice or
wit. Either conveys negative feelings, coupled with the appearance of rationality.
Rationalization is slightly different; the commenter may admit to destructive
feelings or urges but uses pseudo-rational arguments to justify them and dispel shame or
guilt (Vaillant, 1992). This commenter justifies aggression towards fat people by
claiming that it can help prevent people from being obese:
Obesity absolutely should be mocked and ridiculed. Its called societal pressure.
And not being obese. (The Guardian, 2015)
Similarly, this commenter claims that shaming and disparaging behaviors towards fat
people are justifiable.
Your body effects everything around you. Your friends, family, etc. Health,
limitations, and mental affect too. I'll keep shaming you and keep being a dick for
the common good. I'm not ashamed to do that. You are fat, angry, refuse to
change, and you keep trying to deflect responsibility. You need Jesus bro to see
the light. (YouTube, 2015)
Both codes were predominantly associated with overgeneralizing and personalizing
distortions. Associated behaviors included contradicting, disparaging, defending,
attacking, and judging. Overall, the concentration of defense mechanisms in the middle
of the adaptiveness scale was consistent across all three samples. While one commenter
made a violent suggestion and several used very disparaging language, there were no
threats of physical or sexual violence or other behavior that indicated a psychotic level of
distortion. The next section will discuss some defining characteristics of each of the
three samples.
Characteristics of Individual Samples
Each sample had a somewhat different composition. This section will explore the
topography of each sample from a defense mechanism standpoint, highlighting some
difference and similarities between them.
Instagram Sample
This sample was derived from a discussion forum under a post by prominent body
positive activist and plus-sized model, Tess Holliday. Figure 3 shows the composition of
defense mechanisms:
Figure 3. Instagram sample defense mechanisms (2015; n = 41).
Incidences of Projection were somewhat higher than Displacement in this sample,
with Rationalization and Intellectualization also occurring several times. While there was
a significant amount of aggressive discourse, there were also several comments that fell
into the Adaptive category:
are they really saying that? I mean I'm fat, and I am heathy but that doesn't mean I
am blind to statistics. I don't know if you are familiar with health literacy research
but it's a fascinating topic. If knowing that something is a risk was enough to
change behaviour then why would anyone smoke for example?
Behaviour change is complex and difficult. If you want to encourage people to
change their behaviour you need to work with their intrinsic motivation. Fat
shaming and similar tactics only work to entrench the patterns that have lead
someone to get fat in the first place. (Instagram, 2015)
This comment was coded as Altruism because it discussed the merits of a contentious
argument in a way that demonstrated compassion for both viewpoints and eschewed
judgmental or disparaging language. Hallmarks of Altruism include empathy and
responding to actual rather than projected needs of others (Vaillant, 1992). Similarly, this
comment was coded as Sublimation:
I am 5'10" and wear a size 24. My Dr. does blood work yearly. I do not have high
blood pressure, heart disease, high cholesterol or diabetes. I work out in the water
daily. Not all plus size people are unhealthy. I know 30 years ago I thought I
would always be a size 13 but life changes. I love myself my husband, children
and grandchildren love me. I have learned to accept myself in a society that
doesn't accept me. I used to have to make a lot of my own clothes. It is nice to
have so many choices now days. (Instagram, 2015)
Sublimation allows one to redirect uncomfortable or taboo feelings and desires
towards healthy outlets (Vaillant, 1992). This commenter appears to have been able to
create healthy relationships to substitute for whatever past aggression she has
experienced as a result of being fat: "I have learned to accept myself in a society that
doesn’t accept me." While the proportion of neurotic and immature comments was
slightly different from the overall sample results, the combined adaptive comments were
consistent (see Figure 4):
Figure 4. Instagram sample defense levels (2015; n=41).
Guardian Sample
The Guardian sample was derived from the comments on an article by Lindy
West, which was written in response to the Nicole Arbour video, Dear Fat People. The
composition of codes in the Guardian sample is significantly different from the overall
Figure 5. Guardian sample defense mechanisms (2015; n=46).
Displacement was the dominant defense. The discourse in this sample had a more
intellectual, argumentative tone than in the other two samples: though the topic of
discussion was similar, the comments appeared more rational and less personalized:
It's a really interesting turn of phrase. 'There's something wrong with' fat people.
They are fat, is what's wrong. It's a health issue, at most. But there's nothing
'wrong' with them and I wish we'd stop behaving as if it's a sign of moral
weakness. Maybe it'd be easier for people to be their healthiest if we stopped
saying things like 'there's something wrong with them', as if it's an inherent
badness. (The Guardian, 2015)
The commenter is discussing the merits of shaming fat people in the third person, rather
than personalizing the subject matter. As the argument continues, another commenter
takes issue with the wording of a previous comment, rather than attacking the commenter
I see. According to you, some activities that risk serious harms are healthy and
others are not. One would now like to hear a great deal more about your
understanding of the word 'healthy'. Suffice to say that it's rather non-standard.
(The Guardian, 2015)
This, and the comparatively large proportion of adaptive defense mechanisms, is a
distinguishing feature of this sample.
Humor was the second most prevalent defense code. An Adaptive defense
mechanism, Humor is the ability to directly express feelings or desires while reducing
discomfort for the self and others. Humor is not aggressive or exclusive (Vaillant, 1992).
The Guardian sample deviated from the main discussion for some time and engaged in
more playful discourse, free of disparaging or judgmental language:
Well, we should be banning them [tall people] from playing basketball.
Irresponsible for the knees.
as a devotee of k.d. lang i never capitalise.
I suspect that you employ someone to do that type of thing? (The Guardian,
The ability of this group to take a break from arguing and engage in playful banter
was unique to this sample, as was the low rate of immature defensive behavior at 8.9%
(Fig. 6) as compared to the overall sample at 36% (Fig. 2).
Figure 6. Guardian sample defense levels (2015; n = 46).
YouTube Sample
The YouTube source material was a video response to the Dear Fat People video
by body positive activist and reality television star, Whitney Thore. This sample also
varied significantly from the overall sample, with well over half of the comments coded
as Projection, and a smaller proportion coded as Displacement and Rationalization (Fig.
Figure 7. YouTube sample defense mechanisms (2015; n=52).
This sample contained the only violent language found across the three samples:
literally kill yourself tbh [to be honest] irl [in real life] (YouTube, 2015)
This comment was coded as Acting Out, an immature defense mechanism that
encompasses impulsive destructive behavior and the inability to control behavior in spite
of potential negative consequences (Vaillant, 1992). The other comment coded as Acting
Out was from the same commenter:
eat your heart out fatty lmfao [laughing my fucking ass off] redneck can't even
spell hole smh [shaking my head]. I'd be more embarrassed of that than being a
human lard casing (YouTube, 2015)
This comment is a direct, disparaging attack on another commenter without any attention
to emotional distress or social rules, indicating a lack of impulse control associated with
Acting Out.
The overall tone of this sample was more direct and personal; one commenter
self-identified as fat for medical reasons and was subsequently attacked and defended by
other commenters with opinions on her (she self-identified as female) ability to lose
I NEVER said it was ok to be fat .but it is ok for you be rude to someone to
because they have an issue with weight. I doesn't make you a better person. I have
a medical reason why I'm over weight.. And to be honest there's no need for all
the cursing.. It makes you look like a dumbass. (YouTube, 2015)
how does it feel knowing that this "fat acceptance" bs you're pushing for is just a
way of making people feel bad for your sorry fat ass for not doing any thing about
your condition. you deserve to be made fun of and ridiculed you disgusting sack
of lard and excuses :) go take that butthurt out on some food now you self
defeating bovine (YouTube, 2015)
for ur fucking info she can't walk. She's in a wheelchair because of a disease that
she was born with that made it to where she can't walk. Your such a heartless
troll. (YouTube, 2015)
These comments were all coded as Projection, as they contain injustice collecting,
prejudice, and devaluation. No comments were coded as Adaptive in this sample; the
majority were Immature (Fig. 8):
Figure 8. YouTube sample defense levels (2015; n = 52).
All three samples consistently showed a majority of comments coded as Neurotic
(n=72) or Immature (n=50). A significant number of comments were coded as Adaptive
or mature (n=17), while no comments were coded as Psychotic. While the tone of the
discourse varied across the three segments, the overall themes were similar: the health,
validity, and social acceptability of fat people. The final chapter will explore the
implications of the findings and potential for further application of Online
Psychodynamic Discourse Analysis.
This study was conceived to contextualize aggressive online discourse within
human development, thereby filling a significant gap in existing literature derived mainly
from behavioral, face-to-face bullying studies. To that end, the research question was:
What types of ego defensive behavior occurs in aggressive online forum discussions?
This question can be answered by examining the dominant levels of defensive
behaviors or by the specific types of defensive behaviors. Chapter 4 reported both kinds
of results; this chapter will explore their implications, discussing adaptive aspects of each
of the three segments of the sample. These moments of generosity or humor within
largely contentious discourse point to the potential for personal growth, understanding,
and connection. Vaillant’s work focuses on the ability of individuals to grow and mature
over the life cycle. This study, while limited in scope, suggests similar implications.
Finally, I will discuss the potential application of the method used in this study for
other studies of online aggression. The sample contained aggression because it was
derived from discussions of body positive activists’ responses to a viral YouTube video
that described fat people derisively for humorous, but cruel effect. All three segments of
the sample discussed, to some extent, either the validity of the original video, Dear Fat
People, or the acceptability of fat people or fatness in general. While the sample was
specific to the body positive movement and the controversy it engenders, the method and
findings have implications for many divisive social issues. Public discussion of fatness,
obesity, and weight, in general, can be contentious, but pales in comparison with
discussions of issues like police shootings, gun control, free speech, civil rights, rape
culture, abortion, and immigration. Yet, these issues may engender very similar ego
defense responses. I will discuss how such issues have the potential to be examined
through the lens of Online Psychodynamic Discourse Analysis.
Context of Study
Several features of the sample material differentiated it from other types of online
communication such as texting, email, and person-to-person chatting.
The Nature of Online Forums
In the context of this study, online forum refers to public discussions under social
media postings or articles. This type of discourse has several defining features:
It is asynchronous. A single subthread (secondary discussion) may take place
over hours, days, or weeks. The YouTube sample discussion began in August of 2015
and is still taking place as of the time of this writing. This is dissimilar to online chat or
texting, which are more bounded by time, and often occur among people who are familiar
with each other in face-to-face settings.
It is anonymous. While online discussion participants can choose to use their
legal names, most have usernames that allow them some level of anonymity. Some
social media outlets, such as Facebook, encourage or require legal names, but the three
outlets used in this study do not. There has been speculation that anonymity lowers
inhibition (Suler, 2004) or encourages more explicit language to reduce ambiguity
(Johnson, 2006)
It is topical. While the topic of discussion may vacillate over time, it is started in
response to a specific post, video, or article on a specific topic, in this case, the Dear Fat
People viral video.
It is public. Anyone in a country with open access to the internet and an email
address can take part in these conversations. Anyone with open access to the internet can
read them. This means that the participants may be very diverse or very homogeneous.
The anonymity built into such forums makes it difficult to determine demographics in an
archival study.
It is monitored. Levels and types of monitoring vary. YouTube and Instagram
have some user control built into the interface. Original posters can block users or report
them for abuse (violation of terms of use); any user or reader can also report abuse. The
Guardian sample is monitored by The Guardian; several comments were removed by
administrators for violation of terms of use. This is relevant because it may affect the
level of civility and frequency of hate speech or profanity in the discourse.
Discussion of Results: Dominant Defense Mechanisms
As discussed in Chapter 4, the main levels of ego defense found in the sample
were Neurotic and Immature, while the two most common defense mechanisms were
Projection and Displacement. Adaptive defense mechanisms were also present,
particularly Humor in the Guardian sample.
Defense mechanisms have a developmental goal: They allow the psyche to
partially experience traumatic or taboo feelings or desires by distorting reality to the
extent that is required by the person’s maturity and according to the level of trauma he or
she has experienced (Vaillant, 1993). They relieve pressure on the psyche and allow the
person to at least partially function. The frequency of Projection and Displacement in the
overall sample, and particularly in the YouTube sample, suggests that there is a pervasive
need to express aggression more openly than is allowed by face-to-face society. The lack
of Psychotic defenses calls into question the tendency towards pathologizing online
aggression in existing literature and media reporting.
Projection allows the psyche to become partially aware of unconscious material
by attributing it to another person or thing, rather than recognizing it as coming from
within the self. It is an Immature defense mechanism because it requires a significant
amount of reality distortion for the unconscious desire or feeling to manifest. Projection
is the attribution of one’s own feelings or traits to an external object or person.
Comments were coded for projection if they displayed a level of distortion that (a)
demonstrated strong, irrational feelings, and (b) directed these feelings at a person with
whom the commenter had no prior relationship or knowledge. Vaillant (1992) associates
projection with behaviors such as injustice collecting, prejudice, and devaluation.
Example of Projection. For example, if in a fit of anger I yell at my daughter that
she is stupid, but am unable to admit to myself that I have behaved destructively, I might
accuse my husband of being cruel when he is actually calm. However, because this
feeling has now manifested outside of my unconscious, I have the opportunity to become
aware that I am being unreasonable towards my husband and examine the source of my
anger. I can become cognizant of my cruel behavior towards my daughter and take
reparative steps such as admitting my fault and apologizing. However, if the pain
associated with my behavior is too great for my psyche to bear, I may continue to attack
my husband for imagined poor behavior while ignoring my own.
Each defense mechanism has certain behavioral hallmarks that are identifiable
through discourse. The hallmarks of Projection include prejudice, injustice collecting,
and devaluation (Vaillant, 1992). I may display prejudice if I blame my projected
behavior on my husband’s masculinity; devaluation if I denigrate his parenting abilities;
hypervigilance if I closely monitor his behavior; injustice collecting if I bring up past
multiple grievances to support my projection.
Three of these hallmarks emerged in the discourse coded as Projection:
Prejudice: "They don't give a fuck about themselves which is exactly why they
judge others." "Comparing sport with being a lazy, feckless greedy, self-entitled
Devaluation: "You are a silly mean nasty little girl."
"I doubt you understand how childish you sound."
Injustice Collecting: "it's bad for the population in general because you lazy fat
fucks insist on telling other fat fucks that it's OK to be fat. "
"We really don't need you bullying us... we do plenty of it to ourselves thanks to
people like you and comments like yours. "
Another way to identify projection is to look for certain words that indicate
personalization and distortion:
listen kiddo, if you really cared you would have called us land whales. What you
are doing has been done and it doesn't work. You are a silly mean nasty little girl.
We know the dangers of our situation and we don't need you to remind us with
your horrible bullying. (Instagram, 2015)
However, just because we are overweight it doesn't mean we shouldn't be able to
love ourselves and find our own beauty. We really don't need you bullying us...
we do plenty of it to ourselves thanks to people like you and comments like yours.
So very kindly fuck off. (Instagram, 2015)
This person uses "you" to refer to a specific target with whom he or she disagrees.
The commenter calls the target names, "You are a silly mean nasty little girl" and directs
profanity at the target, indicating irrationality. The commenter groups him or herself
with an unspecified assumed target group, “We know the dangers of our situation...We
really don’t need you bullying us...we do plenty of it to ourselves.” He or she groups the
target with another unspecified group of aggressors, "thanks to people like you." The
specificity of the comments towards the target identifies this as projection rather than
Function of Projection. What function might these types of online projection
fill? Rejecting a person’s beliefs by calling him stupid or ignorant may temporarily
relieve the discomfort caused by having one’s own perspective challenged. Many of the
comments coded as Projection include name-calling and profanity, behaviors that appear
childish or immature. This appears to be regressive, which Anna Freud claims is
common in adolescents who tend to swing between extremes of behavior (Freud,
The YouTube sample scored the highest rate of Projection. A person who
habitually makes himself feel better by comparing himself favorably to fat people may be
triggered by the source video (which disputes this viewpoint) to denigrate or contradict
those who agree with it. Comments coded as Projection rarely demonstrate the ability to
consider multiple perspectives. Projection creates objectification: the inability to relate to
the target of projection. This may be particularly true online, due to the lack of non-
textual information or feedback (Balick, 2014).
Displacement redirects feelings towards a less important object or person. The
impersonality of the online environment may facilitate this particular defense; being
unable to see or hear the object of displaced impulses depersonalizes them. Vaillant
(1992) claims that substituting strangers for emotionally important people is a feature of
displacement. Like Projection, Displacement allows for partial expression of repressed
material by placing it somewhere other than the original source. It is different from
Projection because the unconscious desire or feeling is not directly attributed to another.
It is instead diffused as the object is more general and less threatening than the original
source (Vaillant, 1992).
Illustration of Displacement. If, as a child, I was told I was stupid by a parent,
as an adult I might attribute stupidity to all immigrants (especially if this was common in
my environment), and substitute immigrants as a group for my anger at my parent.
Hallmarks of Displacement include phobias, harmful humor, and prejudice (Vaillant,
1992). I might display phobias by avoiding areas of town populated by immigrants,
harmful humor by repeating disparaging jokes about them, and prejudice by refusing to
hire them.
These hallmarks of Displacement were illustrated in the sample:
Sarcasm/Wit: “OMG! You changed my life! How was I to ever know this will
work? You should be crowned royalty and teach us all! You are the Dr. Oz of
Prejudice: “To think that people worry about kids doing drugs, or the “example”
legalization would set, when one and a half million Americans die of heart disease
each year, because it's perfectly acceptable to eat until you croak.”
Comments were coded for Displacement if they contained some of the features of
Projection, such as attributing one’s feelings to something else, but were more indirect or
rational in their language, indicating that the intensity of the emotion was diffused, rather
than transferred directly to an alternative object. Diffusion indicates a higher level of
adaptation; adaptive defense mechanisms succeed in at least partial expression of the
impulse with potentially less harm to self or others. Displacement may still cause harm
to the target, but it is not as direct as Projection.
1. “Lets be honest, obesity that you actually have is a desease!” (YouTube,
2. “People who think its all about calories in / out are defunct. Look at the
science ppl.” (YouTube, 2015)
The comments coded as displacement often debated the legitimacy of the
correlation between health and weight. Comment 2 above could also be coded for
Isolation—being unaware of emotions underlying seemingly rational arguments.
However, the fact that he or she is commenting on the legitimacy of people who hold
different views, rather than the views themselves, indicates Displacement. Comment 1
would be coded as Projection if it had been directed at a specific target (on Instagram the
use of @username in the comment alerts users that they have a comment directed at
them). However, because there was no specified target, the use of “you” seems to be
generally directed towards people who do not believe that obesity is universally
indicative of poor health.
Function of Displacement. Like Projection, Displacement may temporarily
relieve the discomfort associated with having one’s assumptions or biases challenged.
The Guardian sample provided the highest number of examples of displacement, in the
form of argument about the value, health, and validity of fat people. Rather than personal
attacks, as in the YouTube sample, commenters argued about whether or not shaming fat
people is effective or moral:
It's a really interesting turn of phrase. 'There's something wrong with' fat people.
They are fat, is what's wrong. It's a health issue, at most. But there's nothing
'wrong' with them and I wish we'd stop behaving as if it's a sign of moral
weakness. (The Guardian, 2015)
I'm not usually one to criticize people for issues of individual freedom or
indulgence, but when a group such as the obese try to carve out a space in society
immune from criticism, they deserve a friendly fuck no. (The Guardian, 2015)
Both of these commenters do not identify themselves or a specific object (person) in their
arguments; they are general instead of personal. Even when the discourse becomes more
direct, it is still about the strength of the argumentation, not the person making the
You now give three new responses: an argument from different risks, an argument
from 'fairness', and an argument from disgust. Of these three, the third has the
most intellectual content. You may want to reflect on that. (The Guardian, 2015)
Ironically, these commenters objectify those on which they displace their
aggression more than those who make direct attacks on an individual. While the
YouTube commenters are direct in their attacks of one another, the Guardian
commenters use third person to discuss the validity of a group that is not participating in
the discussion. Displacement is a more mature, less distorting defense mechanism than
Projection, but may be more prejudicial in the online context because of its tendency to
diffuse intense feeling through generalization.
Implications of Levels of Defense
Much of the existing literature on online aggression, often referred to as trolling
or cyberbullying, focuses on maladaptive behavior and negative outcomes (Eksi, 2012;
Runions, 2013; Schenk, Fremouw, & Keelan, 2013). Indeed, as this study demonstrates,
online aggression often includes denigration, name calling, profanity, and vociferous
personal attacks. On the surface, these results seem to support the claim that online
behavior is significantly disinhibited (Suler, 2004). However, the results of this study call
into question the idea that online behavior is more frequently aberrant and harmful than
face-to-face aggression. Certainly, there are many documented cases of criminal online
aggression that are harmful and likely pathological, such as revenge porn, cyber stalking,
swatting, and impersonation. However, none of the comments examined in this study
were coded for the pathological defense mechanisms that would indicate a level of
distortion necessary to enact these crimes.
Lack of Psychotic Defense
The online Body Positive community frequently engages in arguments about the
validity of its goals of self-acceptance (Baker, 2015a, 2015b). It espouses a narrative of
self-acceptance that contradicts oft-repeated science about obesity and social norms of
attractiveness, making it a target for online debate. What is remarkable about the
findings, then, is that the most frequent codes were Neurotic, second most frequent were
Immature, and third most frequent were Mature/Adaptive. No comments were coded as
Psychotic. When looked at through a psychodynamic lens, the comments examined in
this study, while often angry, immature, or disparaging, were not particularly
pathological or violent. The one violent comment in the sample expressed a wish for
another’s death, not a threat of murder. While both are disturbing, expression of a death
wish indicates a lack of ability to control one’s speech (Acting Out), not the intent to
commit murder (Delusional Projection). This is not to minimize the effect of online hate
crimes, but to suggest that the bulk of online discourse fits within the larger picture of
normal (not psychotic) human behavior.
These results suggest further research is needed to validate the Online
Disinhibition Effect (Suler, 2004). While the perception of anonymity on the internet may
allow people to be more open with their feelings and beliefs, the textual nature of online
discourse is also a factor (Johnson, 2006). Studies have suggested that anonymity does
not have a significant effect on disinhibition (Lapidot-Lefler & Barak, 2015). In the
YouTube sample, one of the commenters claimed to know another personally, and came
to her defense:
Just want to say u have some nerve talking to [username redacted] like that. I'll
have you known I have known her my whole life and she is one amazing person.
For ur info it is not her choice that she is the way she is. It's not because she's lazy
or because she over eats or doesn't care. She has a fucking medical condition. She
does care about her self and she is trying to loose weight.
So you sitting here running your mouth and trying to look like a bad ass is just
fucking wrong and stupid. Not everyone in this world is fat by their own choice.
There are people out there who can't control how they look or weigh. You are just
luck I don't know who you are because I would run ur ass into the damn ground.
(YouTube, 2015)
Clearly, this commenter is not shy about expressing her feelings, in spite of the fact that
her anonymity may be compromised. She expresses a desire to break anonymity so she
can exact retribution for the attack on her friend.
Defense and Growth
George Vaillant has observed the progression of human development through his
longitudinal analysis research. His research shows that samples with disparate financial
and social advantages can become more adaptive during their life spans, and those with
distinct disadvantages in early life can overcome them by midlife (Landes, Ardelt,
Vaillant, & Waldiger, 2014). In the context of this study, this suggests that even
immature defense mechanisms may function as building blocks towards greater
adaptivity later in life. If the only function of defense mechanisms was temporary relief
of discomfort, it would be easy to dismiss contentious online discourse as a pointless,
immature circus. However, the fact that people of opposing viewpoints choose to engage
in textual debate over issues that can be upsetting may indicate that there are also
developmental functions displayed by these types of debates, just as in the face-to-face
It is easy online, just as in the physical world, to avoid those with opposing
viewpoints and lifestyles. Why then, choose to engage in a discussion that may be
upsetting? Those who seek out contentious discussions are unlikely to be consciously
looking to expand their viewpoints, but the final effect may in some cases be (as with
Lindy West in Chapter 1) compassion, understanding, or consideration, however slight.
The next section will examine several instances of adaptive behavior in the three samples.
While this study cannot produce the same results as a longitudinal study of the adult
lifespan, it demonstrates some hints that growth is possible through online adversity.
Compassion in Conflict
Each of the three samples had some examples of either adaptive turns in the
conversation, adaptive comments, or positive changes in the level of adaptation in
response to negative comments. In this section, rather than showing comments in
isolation, I will excerpt small sections of the discourse in sequence to show where and
how adaptive change occurred.
YouTube: From Denigration to Protection
The YouTube sample was highly immature. The most frequent defense
mechanism was Projection, and it was the only sample that had comments coded as
Acting Out. However, in the midst of some of the worst personal attacks, a commenter
who had previously criticized a self-identified fat person came to her defense (in an
attempt to show this interaction, some peripheral comments are left out):
Commenter 1 If you want a better and healthier future you cant bully people into
it. You cant bully people into changing how they if you want a better and
healthier future you cant bully people into it.That's like telling a black person to
be white. Yes I have a disease that made me gain a lot of weight at 14. The
disease I have makes me grow cyst and I have one in my thyroid. No that doesn't
make it ok but I am trying to change that.
Commenter 2 (To Commenter 1) sure you are over weigh because of whatever
medical condition BUT what hes TRYING to say is that it doesnt make it
impossible for you to lose weight, there are ways to do so if you want to be
healthy but you are not willing to do so.
Commenter 3 (to Commenter 1) literally kill yourself tbh [to be honest] irl [in
real life]
Commenter 3 (to Commenter 1) how does it feel knowing that this "fat
acceptance" bs you're pushing for is just a way of making people feel bad for your
sorry fat ass for not doing any thing about your condition. you deserve to be made
fun of and ridiculed you disgusting sack of lard and excuses :) go take that
butthurt out on some food now you self defeating bovine
Commenter 2 (to Commenter 3) fuck off. never tell someone to kill them self.
thats too far
Commenter 1 (to Commenter 2) He's just a stuck up asshole who doesn't think
before he speaks. An if he does he probably has issues.. I'm not taking it
personal. (YouTube, 2015)
The remarkable feature of this segment is that Commenter 2 begins by contradicting
Commenter 1’s assertion that a medical condition prevents her from losing weight.
However, when Commenter 3 makes violent and disparaging comments to Commenter 1,
Commenter 2 defends her and she acknowledges the defense, reassuring him or her that
she is unaffected. This indicates that Commenter 2 is capable of regarding Commenter 1
with compassion and recognizes that Commenter 3’s vitriol may be destructive to her.
This moves the conversation away from objectification and towards relating.
The Guardian: Flexibility and Humor
The Guardian sample, as discussed earlier in this chapter, is predominantly coded
with Displacement. However, in the middle of a fierce debate over the validity of the
body positive standpoint espoused by the author of the article from which these
comments derive, the commenters break into clowning.
Commenter 1 Arbour, I quickly gathered, is a Canadian YouTuber
on that information alone anyone with a brain would avoid her....
(not the canadian bit, i like canadians)
Commenter 2 (to Commenter 1) Not enough to capitalise them.
Commenter 1 (to Commenter 2) as a devotee of k.d. lang i never capitalise.
Commenter 3 (to Commenter 1) I suspect that you employ someone to do that
type of thing? 3;)
Commenter 4 (to Commenter 2) So Ottowan Canadians are ok? (The Guardian,
The discourse then returns debating of the validity of fat-shaming, but humor and
non-harmful satire are woven into the rest of the sample. This sample demonstrates some
flexibility and playfulness that is not apparent in the other two. While this sample is not
without immature discourse, the overall tone is more inquisitive and playful than the
other two samples.
Instagram: Defensiveness and Altruism
The Instagram sample shows isolated sparks of compassion. From a discourse
standpoint, this sample was the most difficult to analyze, as many commenters were
responding to a negative comment or comments by a user who had deleted his or her
account (making his or her comments disappear). While most of the discourse is
consumed with debating the health and validity of fatness (and attacking or refuting the
absent users), some participants express solidarity with one another or reveal their own
journey to self-acceptance.
are they really saying that? I mean I'm fat, and I am heathy but that doesn't mean I
am blind to statistics. I don't know if you are familiar with health literacy research
but it's a fascinating topic. If knowing that something is a risk was enough to
change behaviour then why would anyone smoke for example? Behaviour change
is complex and difficult. If you want to encourage people to change their
behaviour you need to work with their intrinsic motivation. Fat shaming and
similar tactics only work to entrench the patterns that have lead someone to get fat
in the first place. (Instagram, 2015)
I think there is nothing more beautiful than to feel good in your own skin. We
need more people like Tess [the original poster] no matter what your size. Her
beauty shines from within. (Instagram, 2015)
I am 5'10" and wear a size 24. My Dr. does blood work yearly. I do not have high
blood pressure, heart disease, high cholesterol or diabetes. I work out in the water
daily. Not all plus size people are unhealthy. I know 30 years ago I thought I
would always be a size 13 but life changes. I love myself my husband, children
and grandchildren love me. I have learned to accept myself in a society that
doesn't accept me. I used to have to make a lot of my own clothes. It is nice to
have so many choices now days. (Instagram, 2015)
Rather than resorting to extremes, these commenters refute negative comments
without being drawn into Displacement or Projection. The first commenter describes the
complexity of the science behind fatness, rather attacking those with whom he or she
disagrees. The second emphasizes the importance of self-acceptance rather than
approval. Both of these comments were coded as Altruism, which is taking care of an
internal need by serving this need on others. The third commenter shares her own
journey to self-acceptance in the midst of a contentious debate about whether self-love is
acceptable. This is coded as Sublimation, as she describes how having loving
relationships in her life has led her to self-acceptance. Sublimation means gratifying
needs through substitution of healthy relationships or activities. In the midst of discourse
that contains a great deal of denigration, these comments stand out.
Significance of Study
This study combines discourse analysis with applied psychoanalysis to create a
systematized approach to the examination of online discussions. I refer to this as Online
Psychodynamic Discourse Analysis. While the sample is derived from a discussion in
the Body Positive community of a viral video, the method used to apply ego defense
mechanisms to online discourse can be used in any environment that engenders habitual
Though this was not a thematic study, one theme emerged, nonetheless: All three
samples discussed the right of fat people to take up space or resources. The video that all
three samples discussed, Dear Fat People, explicitly disparages a fat child for taking up
too much space in an airplane seat. This visceral, perhaps primitive, reaction to the
potential denial of space or resources could be explored in online forums dealing with the
Black Lives Matter movement and its counter-movements such as All Lives Matter and
Blue Lives Matter; the current debate on illegal immigration; and environmental issues
such as the North Dakota Pipeline protests and the existence of global warming. Whether
viewed from an intrapsychic or social perspective, the ability and right to occupy space
seems to foment conflict and aggression.
This study adds nuance to the discussion of online conflict that includes pathology
of trolls, the impact of online life, and the psychological effects of online bullying.
Instead of separating participants into bullies and victims, examining the defense
responses of all participants allows for a greater sense of what they are co-creating, and
how they may be developing. Applying Vaillant’s defense mechanism spectrum places
online conflict within the larger context of research on human behavior, particularly from
a developmental perspective.
This study contributes to research on the social function of aggression online. For
example, Phillip’s work (2015) examines the cultural context of extreme trolling in the
4chan online community. While this dissertation does not encounter extreme trolling
behaviors, it adds a psychological (micro) dimension to the reasons why people attack
one another online, enhancing Phillip’s social (macro) observations. Balick’s (2014)
applied psychoanalysis research (from the perspective of a psychological practitioner)
examines the ways in which people connect with or objectify one another through social
media. Adding the systematized method used in this dissertation may allow researchers
to study specific phenomena (such as aggression) in more detail. Finally, using an
archival sample allows for deep textual analysis, which can complement the ethnographic
approach taken by Phillips and others in the Internet Studies discipline.
Vaillant’s work, the cornerstone of this dissertation, shows how maturation is
incremental, messy, and slow. As long as researchers and reporters continue to assume
that individual instances of dysfunction indicate mass psychosis (or at least neurosis), the
study of online aggression will suffer from myopia. Vaillant says of his work,
But the quality of the whole journey is seldom changed by a single turning. The
life circumstances that truly impinge upon health, the circumstances that facilitate
adaptation or that stunt later growth – in contrast to fame – are not isolated events.
What makes or breaks our luck seems to be the continued interaction between our
choice of adaptive mechanisms and our sustained relationships with other people.
(Vaillant, 1977, p. 368).
Just as Vaillant points out it is folly to think that a single event shapes the
trajectory of one’s life, it is also folly to imagine that aggressive discourse is devoid of
adaptive outcomes; of signs of slowly growing compassion, relationship, and
The size of this sample limits the ability to draw broad conclusions about social
trends. Because the study is archival, demographic information is unavailable, making it
difficult draw conclusions about applicability across race, gender, economic level,
education level, and so on. As a new method, Online Psychodynamic Discourse Analysis
will need to be reproduced and tested in multiple environments. This study examined
small samples from three sources on a similar topic, which limits generalizability for
other topics or types of samples. Larger or broader samples may yield different results.
Combining Online Psychodynamic Discourse Analysis with interviews or surveys may
be helpful for future studies, so assumptions and interpretations can be examined
alongside the lived experiences of online participants. Studies that cover diverse topics
may also provide a broader sense of the applicability of the method and results.
Although the topic of this study was conflict, I emerged with faith in humanity’s
ability to care for each other. Each sample has moments of beauty—an older woman
sharing how she has come to accept herself; a group of people engaged in a contentious
debate devolving into a Monty-Python-esque humor break; a critic standing up for a
target when a troll tells her to kill herself.
Each of these moments provides a window into the complexity of human
interaction. The story of Lindy West getting to know her online aggressor may seem
more like a modern day fable than a true story. Redemption does not usually come so
easily. Human development is not usually so dramatic. As suggested by Vaillant’s work,
people mature over decades, not months. Online interaction, while relatively new, should
not be oversimplified because it appears different from other kinds of human contact. It
is more explicit than face-to-face interaction—not necessarily less mature.
This study shows that the seeds of maturation—of compassion and growth—are
being planted in aggressive online conversations. Online aggression must be placed in
the context of human behavior and development. It should not be considered an anomaly
or a “virtual” type of communication and connection. The environment is new; the
behavior is not. Adults continue to develop, learn, and grow throughout the lifespan. The
birth of the internet has not changed our ability to mature; in fact, it may offer us more
opportunities for connection and growth.
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Mature or generative behavior.
Body Positive (BoPo)
A social movement based on changing oppressive social norms around physical beauty
and health.
By the way.
Deceptively pretending to be someone else online.
Self-aware aspect of psyche.
Acting aggressively towards others online.
Someone who bullies online.
Purposeful, repetitive, intentionally harmful behavior towards an online target.
Cyber Stalking
Following a person’s online activity across multiple platforms; often involves physical or
sexual threats.
Psychological construct that mediates between the Id and Superego.
Ego Defense Mechanism
Ways in which people distort reality to cope with trauma or taboo desires or feelings.
An online discussion board that serves as a community for people who troll others.
Happy Slapping
Sneaking up on a person, hitting them, videotaping it, and publishing it online.
Unconscious but universal desires and impulses centered around survival.
In my opinion/ in my humble opinion
In real life
Laughing out loud
The Freudian construct of the human mind.
Relating to the unconscious. Associated with the work of theorists like Sigmund Freud
and Carl Jung.
Emotions or desires that are not expressed or fully felt.
Revenge Porn
Digitally publishing or distributing private nude photos without permission. Often in
retaliation for the end of a relationship.
Shaking my head
Psychologically internalized social rules and norms.
Reporting an online target to the police for an imminent violent offense. Called swatting
because intent is to have police send a SWAT team to the target’s home.
To be honest
A person who purposely provokes negative reactions online for entertainment.
Attacking others online with the intention to incite emotional pain.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
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