Projective identification is a psychological process by which a person projects his or her own thoughts and beliefs onto a third party. Often thought to be a defense mechanism, projective identification is generally associated with negative thoughts and actions that an individual considers unacceptable. The emotionally infectious aspect of projective identification has led to the successful study of shared group phenomena.
Psychoanalyst Melanie Klein first introduced the term projective identification in the mid-1940s. In her work Notes on Some Schizoid Mechanisms, Klein suggested that projected thoughts could somehow be positioned inside an animate object as a means of controlling it. Though still in its infancy, Klein's theory would later be developed to explain a very intricate, interpersonal process.
Considered a primeval practice, projective identification is believed to be the basis on which many psychological processes are developed. Empathy and intuition are two valuable processes which are believed to be rooted in the mind's ability to project values. As a defense mechanism, projective identification allows an individual to attach value and meaning to emotions and feelings which are difficult for him or her to concede. Additionally, the process allows an individual to exert some control over a situation and mold his or her self-image by casting off negative attributes and donning positive ones.
According to the theory of projective identification, individuals who possess a thought about themselves which they consider to be intolerable will project it onto another person. During the course of an interaction with a third party, the individual dominates and molds the situation in such a way as to make the other person acclimate to the projection. As a result, the other person is somehow changed to behave in the manner that the individual found distasteful. The individual who projected the negativity is then able to freely identify the other person as possessing the insufferable attributes he or she was so eager to discard.
Identifying when the process of projective identification begins, defining what is projected, and how and when the process ends are still a matter of some controversy. Dr. T.H. Ogden defined projective identification as an interpersonal process which simultaneously involves a defense against the intolerable, an interpersonal relationship, and communication. Once the negativity is identified and a relationship established with a third party, the communication most often occurs cyclically in a nonverbal fashion.
As a means of communication, it is suggested that the projection and identification cycles occur repeatedly in succession and allow an individual to express his or her uncomfortable thoughts or feelings in a nonverbal way. The recipient of these feelings may be unaware of the transference, but is able to empathize with the individual who is communicating the discomfort through action. What is novel about this aspect of the process is the suggested lack of awareness of the individual who made the projection. The person is likely unaware of the nonverbal cues he or she is emitting, thereby admitting to an experience about which he or she is completely oblivious.
In recent years, the projection theory and how it relates to groups of people has been extensively researched. Specifically, studies have been conducted to examine how the emotionally contagious nature of such projective identification influences shared phenomena like the bandwagon effect and groupthink. Within such phenomena, anonymity is thrust forward and the individual withdraws among the masses. The lack of diversity fosters a comfortable cohesion in which all parties are able to function with minimal confrontation, individual accountability, or self-reflection.