Why are we defensive?

Well, we generally need to to maintain a positive view of ourselves, as it generally help us function better (Sherman & Cohen, 2006; Taylor & Brown, 1988).

Yes, in general, humans try to maintain their “adaptive adequacy” : they try to view themselves as moral, efficacious, and successful (Steele, 1988). In everyday life, however, we often encounter threats to the beliefs that we are "a good person". In the hope of maintaining a positive self-view under threat, people have a “psychological immune system” (Gilbert, Pinel, Wilson, Blumberg, & Wheatley, 1998), which engages biased behaviors, perceptions, and cognitions. To preserve self-consistency (Aronson, 1968; Thibodeau & Aronson, 1992) or to undo the negative consequences of a behavior (Cooper & Fazio, 1984), people can alter either the cognition or the behavior to become more in line with the other. In other words, to escape a threat to our ego, we may change our actions or our thoughts to make a situation less threatening. When it comes to our thinking abilities or our intellect, we also may get defensive. more details about this topic in our previous blog post.
Here are some examples of defensive strategies (from Kaufman, 2013) when we feel like our intellect may be challenged:
IF someone is anticipating failure (consciously of not) they may use :
  • A self-handicapping strategy: purposeful sabotage of one’s own performance in order to provide an excuse for an expected failure. Win-win outcome: protected if fails and enhanced if succeeds.
  • A feedback avoidance strategy: avoid courses where we may fail (or perceive to fail!). When poor feedback is anticipated they may avoid feedback altogether. Ignorance is bliss.
IF someone is recovering from failure (consciously of not) they may use :
  • A self-serving bias: attribute successes to internal, dispositional factors and failures to external, situational factors. Some authors refereed to this as the fundamental attribution error (this is actually quite a central theory in social psychology).
  • A downward social comparison: when an objective standard is not available, we will compare their performance to others who are viewed as less competent. Yeah.... so, as theorized by Leon Festinger in 1954 people have an innate drive to evaluate themselves, often in comparison to others. So when analyzing the self in relation to others, if the self is challenged, a defensive strategy would be to compare to others who are viewed as less competent.
Have you gotten defensive recently (it happens!)
Getting defensive is rather normal and we fall in those patterns, at times. We often can't help it. But knowledge is power. Understanding one's self if often a good investment. I hope this reading was useful !  (even if challenging as well)