Although reaction formation has a specific definition in psychiatry, one almost needs a convoluted manner of thinking in order to comprehend how this mysterious defense mechanism of the mind affects its often unaware victims. According to the most reliable definitions of the term, reaction formation occurs when a person harbors such intense adverse feelings about a type of human behavior that, in order to avoid entering into confrontation over the conduct, he or she becomes excessively responsive toward the object of loathing or assumes a false identity commensurate with the activity. The sufferer (though most would deny experiencing any suffering) of reaction formation effectively uses the tactic as a defense mechanism designed to disguise and control uncomfortable internal impulses. The theory of reaction formation explains the person's responses, understandably bewildering to the inexperienced observer, to internal apprehensions or supposed external perils.
Often, the reactive formation syndrome causes the affected person to react with excessive behavior in response to a perceived threat to emotional stability. A teacher who justly or unjustly becomes angry with a student may shower solicitous attention on the "offender" to an uncomfortable, perhaps dangerous, degree. An alcoholic who detests the condition, may annoy friends by constantly sermonizing against their drinking habits. People seemingly governed by extreme righteousness or rectitude may have developed the defensive mechanism as a protection against their deep-seated eroticism. Patients being treated for paranoia frequently display especially intense patterns of reactive formation.
While the understanding of the reactive formation type of defensive mechanism came largely through investigations of Freud and other psychoanalists, the term itself apparently was coined by criminologist Albert K. Cohen, who spent considerable time studying urban gang behavior. Cohen postulated that these gangs commonly reject the mores of society and replace those standards with "values" of their own. The gang becomes a sub-segment of the larger society, living under rules of its own creation.
In a roundabout way, this may suggest a certain conscious or unconscious connection between police officers and criminal lawyers and the felonious element that claims their attention. The police officer, for instance, who comes to loathe the unlawful segment of society, may react not so much as an avenger of wrongdoing but as a knight in blue uniform wanting to maintain the current social order by safely removing threats to its continuation. Publicized violent confrontations and shootouts between law enforcement officers and criminals to the contrary, most encounters between the police and the "bad" guys end with a peaceful surrender of the latter to handcuffs. Here, reactive formation accomplishes what most people would consider positive results.