In his seminal article “The neuro-psychosis of defense”, Sigmund Freud (1894) coined the term defence mechanism, which can be described as an unconscious psychological reaction aimed at reducing fear, anxiety or unpleasant feelings (Bowins 2004). Given that fear and anxiety arise from threat and danger, the emotion dampening function of defence mechanisms has also been found for individuals at risk of natural hazards.

In the context of private adaptation to flood risks for instance, Grothmann and Reusswig (2006) suggest a role for non-protective responses, a construct that builds on the idea of Freudian defence mechanisms. According to Protection Motivation Theory (PMT), wishful thinking, denial and fatalism are classic examples for non-protective responses. This theory suggests that individuals tend to take protective action under the condition of high risk perception and high coping appraisal, whereas non-protective responses are used under the condition of high risk perception and low coping appraisal. An individual who feels being at high risk but lacks confidence or resources to successfully protect against a flood event, is likely to respond with non-protective responses such as wishful thinking, denial or fatalism. Other examples for non-protective responses are avoidance, postponement (Bubeck et al. 2013) and hopelessness (Milne et al. 2000).

The emotion dampening function of defence mechanisms has also been found for individuals at risk of natural hazards.

There are at least two more coping behaviours that might quality as non-protective responses: reliance on public flood protection and reliance on social support. The former response has generally been found to have a negative effect on mitigation behaviour (Grothmann and Reusswig 2006). In a review by Wachinger et al. (2013) it was found that trust in public protection reduces risk perception and therefore dampens intentions to take precautionary actions. These findings are in stark contrast with a study by Poussin et al. (2014) who found that feeling protected by public measures is positively related to the implementation of structural mitigation measures. On top of their potential negative effect on mitigation behaviour, reliance on public flood protection and social support can be problematic as they may translate into an overestimation of external capacities and resources (Scolobig et al. 2012).

From a protection motivation theory perspective, future studies may model reliance on public flood protection and social support as additional forms of non-protective responses. Given that non-protective responses are not taken all at once (Grothmann & Reusswig 2006), they should not be aggregated into a single measure. As non-protective responses are unobserved latent constructs, future work on protection motivation could benefit from applying more advanced statistical techniques such as structural equation modeling (SEM), also known as covariance structure modeling or LISREL models. Compared to traditional regression analysis, this technique does not only allow to model latent factors, but it also explicitly takes measurement error into account. As SEM is frequently used for theory testing, this technique can also be applied to test the role of non-protective responses within the protection motivation theory.


Bowins, B. (2004). Psychological defense mechanisms: A new perspective. The American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 64(1), 1-26.

Bubeck, P., Botzen, W. J. W., Kreibich, H., & Aerts, J. C. J. H. (2013). Detailed insights into the influence of flood-coping appraisals on mitigation behaviour. Global Environmental Change, 23(5), 1327-1338.

Freud, S. (1964). The neuro-psychosis of defense. In J. Strachey (Ed.), The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 3, pp. 45– 61), London: Hogarth Press. (Original work published in 1894).

Grothmann, T., & Reusswig, F. (2006). People at risk of flooding: Why some residents take precautionary action while others do not. Natural Hazards, 38(1-2), 101-120.

Poussin, J. K., Botzen, W. J. W., & Aerts, J. C. J. H. (2014). Factors of influence on flood damage mitigation behaviour by households. Environmental Science & Policy, 40, 69-77.

Scolobig, A., De Marchi, B., & Borga, M. (2012). The missing link between flood risk awareness and preparedness: Findings from case Studies in an Alpine Region. Natural Hazards, 63(2), 499-520.

Wachinger, G., Renn, O., Begg, C., & Kuhlicke, C. (2013). The risk perception paradox—Implications for governance and communication of natural hazards. Risk Analysis, 33(6), 1049-1065.