Wednesday, July 27, 2005


Anticipation is a mature psychological defense mechanism that involves the realistic planning for future inner discomfort. It also includes goal-directed and premature planning behavior for a variety of future scenarios.

George Vaillant has this to say about Anticipation:

As a coping mechanism, anticipation permits the user to become affectively aware of an event before it happens, and thus attenuates anxiety and depression. In some ways, anticipation is synonymous with what psychiatrists call "insight."

An alternative method of coping with with a threatening event is Denial. As a psychological defense mechanism, Denial is one of the most primitive (sometimes called "psychotic") and immature mechanisms available to the psyche. Its goal is identical to Anticipation, which is to attenuate anxiety and depression about a future event.

So, while both psychological mechanisms have a similar goal and are effective in mediating anxiety and depression, the two have markedly different long-term consequences.

Jeff Jacoby's column today discusses "Failures of Intelligence" and provides an excellent example of how the outcomes can differ:

THREE WEEKS before the London bombings of July 7, Britain’s Joint Terrorist Analysis Center advised policymakers that ‘‘at present there is not a group with both the current intent and the capability to attack the UK.’’ That reassuring message from the country’s top intelligence and law enforcement officials, The New York Times reported last week, prompted the British government to lower its terror alert. Less than a month later, 52 people were murdered and 700 wounded when three subway trains and a bus were blown up in the worst act of terrorism the United Kingdom has experienced since the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988.

Obviously this was a serious intelligence failure. Undoubtedly there will be investigations into the cause of the blunder. Perhaps heads will roll for failing to ‘‘connect the dots’’ in time to prevent the 7/7 atrocities. (Or perhaps not: CIA Director George Tenet not only retained his job long after Sept. 11, 2001, he was even awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.) Whatever is ultimately learned, we can safely assume, will promptly become political fodder for British partisans of every stripe.

But the botched terror assessment raises a question for us, too: Which kind of intelligence failure is better — the kind that badly understates a threat, such as the one in London, or the kind that overstates a threat, such as the insistent warnings before the invasion of Iraq that Saddam Hussein was armed with weapons of mass destruction?

Another way to say this, of course, is to ask, is it better to downplay, understate, and even deny a threat; or to take potential threats perhaps overly seriously, but to aggressively anticipate them?

Jacoby goes on to pose this extremely relevant question:

So what kind of culture do we want intelligence agencies to foster among their operatives and analysts: one that tends to be overly focused on possible threats, or one that is more likely to downplay them? In general, would we rather take action to eliminate a danger that turns out to have been overstated — or take no action, and then be stunned when the enemy strikes?

Then, as any mature, reasonable and psychologically healthy person would, Jacoby answers that question this way:

If intelligence failures are inevitable — and in a world of human fallibility, they are — we are better off worrying too much about our enemies and taking steps to defeat them than worrying too little and being caught, unready, when they attack. Worrying too much led the United States and Britain to topple a brutal tyrant. Worrying too little led to 9/11 and 7/7.

Those who continue to scream that Bush "lied" about intelligence regarding Iraq; and vociferously maintain (despite all evidence to the contrary) that Saddam had no WMD; and even heatedly insist that worries about terrorism are being deliberately overblown to "frighten" the masses--these are the people who are living in a fantasy world of Denial.

By forcing themselves not to face reality, they are, after a fashion, decreasing momentarily the anxiety and depression that the horrendous events of our age quite naturally have stimulated. But, unlike those who, with grim determination, are planning for the worse and using Anticipation to do the best they can to prevent the worse while psychologically preparing for it; the Deniers will be stunned and paralyzed when the worse happens. They will also be the first to blame those who tried to prevent it for not doing enough--all the while they actively impeded the Anticipaters from doing anything (this is another psychological defense called Displacement, but we'll talk about that later).

There is no guarantee that using Anticipation and developing insight will successfully prevent or even prepare us adequately for the unthinkable kinds of things that our enemies wish to inflict upon us. Using Denial, we can put off feeling bad and anxious for a while. And for that time we might even feel intellectually superior and enlightened compared to those stupidly worked-up people who prepare for the worse. But in the end, the denial of reality can only lead to grief, victimhood, despair, hopelessness, and even death.

That's why psychiatrists refer to it as "primitive", "psychotic", and "immature", after all.

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