A major obstacle to developing effective ethical judgment is called “defense mechanisms.” Sigmund Freud popularized the concept of human defense mechanisms when he introduced his personality model—the id, ego and superego. The ego deals with reality, attempting to reconcile the conflicting demands of the id and superego. The id seeks to fulfill wants, needs and impulses, while the superego seeks to act in an idealistic and moral manner. While modern research does not focus on Freud’s theories the same way he presented them, the concept of defense mechanisms remains as a viable way to understand human behavior and, in our context here, as a challenge to ethical judgment.
Defense mechanisms are sometimes created to shield us from the conflict between what we want instinctually and the standards of behavior that have been established. In an attempt to protect ourselves, and sometimes coupled with rationalization, can be used to distort the choices we make. Defense mechanisms filter out an alternate reality in favor of the reality that the mind prefers—they can falsify, twist, or deny reality. Denial is an open rejection of an obvious truth. By simply denying that the problem, affliction or ailment exists, the person does not have to deal with it.
Denial as a defense mechanism has become especially evident with the judgment students are making regarding alcohol consumption and binge drinking. Despite best efforts, overdoses involving alcohol alone rose 25% since 2008 in college populations (NIH, 2014).
The first step to helping students have better judgment towards consuming alcohol involves the rejection of denial; we cannot deny that many college students will drink, and virtually all of them will experience the effects of college drinking. Here are the current facts about college drinking from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. We know that:
• 1,825 college students die every year from alcohol-related injuries.
• 690,000 students are assaulted by someone who has been drinking.
• 97,000 of those are alcohol-related sexual assaults or rape.
• 25% of college students report academic consequences of alcohol abuse.
• 1.5% of college students report trying to commit suicide due to drinking or drug use issues