A defensive attitude can cause tension and conflict in individual relationships, as well as within larger groups or even entire populations. New research has identified one way to successfully tackle it: by building up rather than breaking down social bonds.
As the researchers point out, defensiveness – perhaps in response to a mistake, a perceived wrong, or a different opinion – often increases if the person being defensive is made to feel like an outcast.
Treating someone you disagree with or who has wronged you with respect, and valuing their role, isn't easy – but the researchers suggest it's better in the long run for everyone involved, and for resolving the conflicts that came about to begin with.
"This research shows that defensiveness is strengthened by negative social responses, but is reduced when people feel secure in their group identity, respected, and valued," says psychologist Lydia Woodyatt, from Flinders University in Australia.
The new research covers two experiments. In the first, 202 volunteers were invited to recall a time they had wronged someone else – they were asked to answer questions about it, including how 'bad' they thought the incident was, how close they were to the other person, and how much guilt they felt about it.
Based on the survey responses, the more important relationships – where the sense of belonging and acceptance was under greater threat – led to a more defensive attitude, as measured by a greater refusal to accept guilt over what had happened.
The second study went further into how defensiveness could be reduced. This time, 143 volunteers watched a documentary about unethical meat and egg production before being invited to take part in a pre-programmed chat about what had been shown and their attitudes towards it.
As in the first experiment, participants became defensive if they felt their moral or social identity was under threat. In this case, it was shown that defensiveness could be reduced through engagement, acceptance and "repair behaviours" – such as having the opportunity to donate to animal welfare causes, for example.
The researchers conclude that if those who are being defensive are still made to feel part of a group and are still treated with respect, the defensiveness on show is often reduced. Even if you disagree with someone, trying to engage with them would seem to be better than attacking them.
"Of course these responses do not always feel natural or easy – especially when faced with someone who we think has done wrong to us," says Woodyatt. "Our instinct is also self-protective."
"As a result, when people are caught doing something wrong in our society, we often stigmatise, reject or punish them, but this is likely only strengthening those defensive responses over time, not just of that person but of other people in similar situations."
While defensiveness is understandable and does have some benefits – helping us to recover from failures and maintain self-esteem and optimism, for example – it also stops us from solving problems and has a negative impact on healthy decision-making.
We can let ourselves 'off the hook' by misremembering what has happened, minimising the harm caused, deflecting blame to others, or disengaging entirely from situations – behaviours you will see time and time again in social media spats, for instance.
What the new research does is give us a way through those problems, whether at the scale of a single family or a whole country. If we want to move forward through difficult situations, then we need to deal with defensiveness.
"Humans have a primary psychological need to be valued and included by others, to feel that they are good and appropriate group members or relationship partners," says Woodyatt.
"Defensiveness creates blind spots in decision-making. When individuals and groups respond defensively problems go unrecognised, victims go unacknowledged, and relationships deteriorate."
The research has been published in the British Journal of Social Psychology.