Chapter 1. Human Behavior

Human Factors That Inhibit Learning

Defense Mechanisms

Defense mechanisms can be biological or psychological. The biological defense mechanism is a physiological response that protects or preserves organisms. For example, when humans experience a danger or a threat, the “fight or flight” response kicks in. Adrenaline and other chemicals are activated and physical symptoms such as rapid heart rate and increased blood pressure occur.

An example of this might occur when an anxious student pilot is learning to place the aircraft (helicopter) in an autorotative descent, which is used in the event of engine failure or tail rotor failure. Emergency procedure training is necessary to practice as the outcome of a true emergency is directly related to the pilot’s ability to react instantly and correctly, and in taking the proper corrective action since there may be limited time to analyze the problem. The anxiety that the student pilot may feel while practicing such maneuvers may resolve itself into a “fight or flight” response.

The instructor needs to recognize the student’s apprehension about performing the autorotation and help the student gain the necessary skill level to feel comfortable with the maneuver. In this case, the instructor could take the procedure apart and demonstrate each stage of an autorotation. Allowing the student to then practice the stages at various heights should instill the confidence needed to perform the autorotation.

Sigmund Freud introduced the psychological concept of the ego defense mechanism in 1894. The ego defense mechanism is an unconscious mental process to protect oneself from anxiety, unpleasant emotions, or to provide a refuge from a situation with which the individual cannot currently cope. For example, someone who blots out the memory of being physically assaulted is using a defense mechanism. People use these defenses to prevent unacceptable ideas or impulses from entering the conscience. Defense mechanisms soften feelings of failure, alleviate feelings of guilt, help an individual cope with reality, and protect one’s self-image. [Figure 1-4]

When anxiety occurs, the mind tries to solve the problem or find an escape, but if these tactics do not work, defense mechanisms are triggered. Defense mechanisms share two common properties:

  • They often appear unconsciously.
  • They tend to distort, transform, or otherwise falsify reality.

Because reality is distorted, perception changes, which allows for a lessening of anxiety, with a corresponding reduction in tension. Repression and denial are two primary defense mechanisms.


Repression is the defense mechanism whereby a person places uncomfortable thoughts into inaccessible areas of the unconscious mind. Things a person is unable to cope with now are pushed away, to be dealt with at another time, or hopefully never because they faded away on their own accord. The level of repression can vary from temporarily forgetting an uncomfortable thought to amnesia, where the events that triggered the anxiety are deeply buried. Repressed memories do not disappear and may reappear in dreams or slips of the tongue (“Freudian slips”). For example, a student pilot may have a repressed fear of flying that inhibits his or her ability to learn how to fly.

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