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Defensive Projection: One Possible Explanation Behind Eric Schneiderman’s Alleged Behavior
Former New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman made headlines this week after allegations surfaced from multiple women claiming he subjected them to nonconsensual physical violence. The latest story in a familiar string of allegations against prominent figures and people in power begs the question – is there a common motivating factor behind this type of behavior?
Leonard Newman is the associate chair of psychology at Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences. Speaking in general terms, Dr. Newman says defensive projection could account for why people sometimes turn out to be guilty of the things they vigorously condemn in others.
“Social psychologists have conducted quite a lot of research on power’s effects on how people think and behave. A theme of a lot of that research is that power can lead people to be more egocentric and self-serving. That makes itself felt in lots of ways. For example, powerful people expect people to like and accept them, and are less sensitive than others to cues suggesting that someone is rejecting them. And even more than the rest of us, when powerful people are not sure about how someone else feels about something, they’re likely to just assume that the other person is feeling the same way that they are. The relationship between these biases and sexually harassing subordinates is probably obvious.
“When people worry that they might have violated their own norms and standards—like when people fear that they might have somehow behaved in an immoral way—it takes a lot of mental work and energy to convince themselves that they haven’t, and to keep from being aware of how they might not be the wonderful people that they’d like to be. Paradoxically, this can cause you to be even more pre-occupied than you already were with thoughts about the awful behavior you might have engaged in. That makes you quick to spot your own possible flaws in others. This is called defensive projection, and it probably accounts for why people sometimes turn out to be guilty of the same things they vigorously condemn in other people.”
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