In psychoanalytic theory, reaction formation (German: Reaktionsbildung) is a defense mechanism in which emotions and impulses which are anxiety-producing or perceived to be unacceptable are mastered by exaggeration of the directly opposing tendency. The reaction formations belong to Level 3 of neurotic defense mechanisms, which also include dissociation, displacement, intellectualization, and repression.
Reaction formation depends on the hypothesis that
The concept of reaction formation has been used to explain responses to external threats as well as internal anxieties. In the phenomenon described as Stockholm syndrome, a hostage or kidnap victim 'falls in love' with the feared and hated person who has complete power over them. Similarly paradoxical reports exist of powerless and vulnerable inmates of Nazi camps creating 'favourites' among the guards and even collecting objects discarded by them. The mechanism of reaction formation is often characteristic of obsessional neuroses. When this mechanism is overused, especially during the formation of the ego, it can become a permanent character trait. This is often seen in those with obsessional character and obsessive personality disorders. This does not imply that its periodic usage is always obsessional, but that it can lead to obsessional behavior.