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Explanations > Behaviors > Coping > Intellectualization

Description | Example | Discussion | So what?



Intellectualization is a 'flight into reason', where the person avoids uncomfortable emotions by focusing on facts and logic. The situation is treated as an interesting problem that engages the person on a rational basis, whilst the emotional aspects are completely ignored as being irrelevant.

Jargon is often used as a device of intellectualization. By using complex terminology, the focus becomes on the words and finer definitions rather than the human effects.


A person told they have cancer asks for details on the probability of survival and the success rates of various drugs. The doctor may join in, using 'carcinoma' instead of 'cancer' and 'terminal' instead of 'fatal'.

A woman who has been raped seeks out information on other cases and the psychology of rapists and victims. She takes self-defense classes in order to feel better (rather than more directly addressing the psychological and emotional issues).

A person who is in heavily debt builds a complex spreadsheet of how long it would take to repay using different payment options and interest rates.


Intellectualization protects against anxiety by repressing the emotions connected with an event. It is also known as 'Isolation of affect' as the affective elements are removed from the situation.

Freud believed that memories have both conscious and unconscious aspects, and that intellectualization allows for the conscious analysis of an event in a way that does not provoke anxiety.

Intellectualization is one of Anna Freud's original defense mechanisms.

So what?

When people treat emotionally difficult situations in cold and logical ways, it often does not mean that they are emotionally stunted, only that they are unable to handle the emotion at this time. You can decide to give them space now so they can maintain their dignity, although you may also decide to challenge them in a more appropriate time and setting.

When you challenge a person who is intellectualizing, they may fight back (which is attack, another form of defense) or switch to other forms of defense.

See also

Denial, Dissociation, Rationalization, Repression

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