Classical Texts in Psychology

York University, Toronto, Ontario

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Saul Rosenzweig (1941)
Worchester State Hospital

First published in Psychological Review, 48, 347-349.

Reactions to frustration may be divided into two fundamental types. One of these looks to the fate of the frustrated segmental need, the other to the fate of the individual as a whole -- namely, the integrated and coordinated personality -- as a result of frustration. In other words, there is a type of reaction to frustration which serves to fulfill the frustrated need in spite of momentary obstructions; on the other hand are those reactions which serve to protect the integration of the personality if and when the latter is threatened by the frustrating situation, The former type of reaction may be designated 'need-persistive' and may be thought of as occurring invariably after frustration, whereas the latter, which may be designated 'ego-defensive,' is conceived as occurring only under special conditions of ego-threat. Most behavior incident to frustration entails both types of reaction but pure cases of each alone are found and the theoretical distinction thus appears justified as an aid to analysis.

The relationship of the present distinction to current psychoanalytic concepts is fairly obvious. One function of the present distinction is indeed to clarify the difference among psychoanalytic mechanisms and to assist in their experimental study, Thus, the concept of sublimation points chiefly to need-persistive reactions while that of projection concerns the defense of the ego. A fusion of need-persistive and ego- [p. 348] defensive reactions is found in the mechanism of reaction-formation since here an inhibited impulse gains indirect satisfaction (sublimation) while protecting the ego by a kind of displacement (projection). Most of the psychoanalytic mechanisms might be similarly allocated in the present framework.

A demonstration of the present distinction between need-persistive and ego-defensive reactions to frustration may be given by reporting an experiment designed to investigate the psychoanalytic concept of repression. Two groups of subjects were given a series of Jig-saw picture-puzzles to solve. To one of the groups the puzzles were presented informally, for the ostensible purpose of helping the experimenter classify the problems for future use. The other group was given the same puzzles to solve but as an intelligence test. In both cases the subjects were permitted to finish half of the puzzles but were stopped midway in each of the remaining half. They were then asked to name the puzzles which they had attempted.

It will be readily appreciated that the subjects in the informal group were expected to be working under conditions of comparatively little tension whereas those in the formal group were being considerably aroused. While, in the one case, interest was mainly centered on the task so that incompletion could mean very little beyond residual tension related to the problem in hand, in the other case the pride of the participants: had been definitely evoked and incompletion would almost inevitably be experienced as failure. In other words, in the informal group need-persistive reactions alone were presumably entailed while In the formal group ego-defensive ones were additionally brought into play. The hypothesis of the experiment was that under the informal conditions the unfinished tasks would be better recalled than the finished ones because need-persistive reactions alone would be operative and would make for the easier recall of tasks with which undischarged tension was associated. Conversely, subjects in the formal group were expected to recall finished tasks more frequently, the assumption being that with the arousal of pride and accompanying ego-defense in case of failure, the individual's needs for inviolacy would take [p. 349] precedence over the task-tension making for the recall of the unfinished tasks.

The experimental results substantiated the hypothesis. In the group with informal conditions, 7 of the subjects re-called a preponderance of finished tasks and 19 a preponderance of unfinished tasks (4 showed no preponderant tendency), while in the group with formal conditions 17 recalled a preponderance of finished tasks and 8 a preponderance of un-finished tasks (5 showed no preponderant tendency).

It seems reasonable to conclude that while the present experimental results do not exhaust the possibilities of measuring the various aspects of need-persistence and ego-defense involved in repression, they at least demonstrate the basic distinction between the two reaction types. Theoretically this distinction proceeds from a psychobiological approach to the dynamics of behavior. It does not depend upon any special catalogues of drives or needs and hence falls outside the field of taxonomic controversy. It aids in the reformulation of psychoanalytic concepts along somewhat more precise and more experimental lines and, since it implicitly anticipates certain further differences in the reactions of individuals, it respects the uniqueness of the concrete personality.


[1] Read at the 1940 meeting of the Eastern Psychological Association in the Symposium on Effects of Frustration.

[2] A detailed account is to be published in the near future.