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Psychological Projection

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"To the selfish, all are selfish."
Aesop of "The Fox and the Bramble"

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Psychological Projection is a common behavioral phenomenon in which a character projects their own character traits, emotions, or desires to another character by presuming they feel or think the same as they. Most often, the character denies some aspect of their own thoughts or behavior while simultaneously assuming or accusing other people of doing or thinking those same things (e.g. The Bully says, "I'm not a bully; that guy [that I'm picking on] is just a big Jerkass!"). They are using themselves as a basis for understanding others and through their perception see their own flaws and virtues in other people. This is usually done unconsciously and never explicitly stated by the character, which can make it hard to notice. But if a character presumes something about another without having any reasons to think so and the presumption has something in common with themselves, they are probably projecting.

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Often (though not always) a Sub-Trope of Hypocrite. Clone by Conversion is the literal version of this. This trope can sometimes be a manifestation of The Golden Rule, because people will by nature project themselves on to others and expect them to act the same as themselves. Often overlaps with Evil Cannot Comprehend Good, Good Cannot Comprehend Evil, Straw Hypocrite, Boomerang Bigot, and Protagonist-Centered Morality. Related to All Psychology Is Freudian, Darwinist Desire, and The Golden Rule. The Shadow Archetype is essentially this trope given a tangible form.

Compare Captain Oblivious. Contrast Hypocrite Has a Point, where the character's accusations have merit, despite the accuser not living up to them themselves. Not to be confused with Astral Projection or Enemy Without, which are rather more fantastic.

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Examples:

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    Comic Books 
  • Several Batman villains project their own origins and insecurities onto Batman.
    • This is what Joker is ultimately trying to prove in The Killing Joke that everyone is really like him deep down — justifying his murderous madness by trying to demonstrate people being strained by worries and neuroses until they have a particularly bad day, and snap just like he did. He fails in the general sense, but in the end he still has a kindred spirit in Batman himself.
    • Hugo Strange thinks that Batman does what he does because he enjoys being powerful and feared, since that is what Strange wants to be (and for extra irony, he's a psychologist).
    • Tommy Elliot/Hush knows Batman's true identity, but thinks that Bruce Wayne is happy that his parents were killed, because Elliot's parents were abusive and he celebrated when they died.
  • Lex Luthor is often shown doing this to his archenemy Superman.
    • In the story The Black Ring, Lex claims Superman doesn't empathize with humanity at all, but it's pretty clear he's projecting this trait onto his archnemesis.
    • In general, it's sometimes implied that the reason why Lex often accuses Superman of using his powers to lord over humanity is because, if their positions were reversed, that's exactly what Lex would do.
    • Several comics have stated that the reason why Lex never realizes Superman is Clark Kent because Lex himself would never deliberately pass up an opportunity to make himself look good, so the idea that Superman is actually doing his heroics anonymously while living a quiet life as a liked-but-not-adored reporter just does not compute. He even fires a computer programmer who used a facial recognition system to put the pieces together, as obviously it must be flawed in some way to come to that conclusion when Lex already knows Superman wouldn't bother with a secret identity.
    • Stories by Grant Morrison in Justice League and 52 show that Lex believes that Superman is as obsessed with him as he is with Superman, and truly thinks that everything Superman does—even just saving some random people's lives—is somehow an attempt to show him up.
    • In All-Star Superman, we get to see what Lex would do if he had Superman's powers: discard all his technology and attempt to Take Over the World with nothing but brute strength, when he accuses Superman of not needing to be smart when he has all his power. Meanwhile, Superman ultimately defeats Lex by using technology to cause his Hour of Power to run out ahead of schedule.
  • Iron Man came to think during Secret Invasion that Captain America had been replaced by a Skrull before the events of Civil War because Cap is a reasonable person and would have agreed the Superhero Registration Act was the right thing to do if it were really him... right? Meanwhile, every other hero is trying to get at Tony to prove he was replaced by a Skrull for the opposite reasons. No one important was actually replaced by skrulls, so their actions are their own. For better or worse.
  • Sonic the Hedgehog (Archie Comics). Invoked in Sonic Universe #63 when Espio accuses Knuckles of projecting his fear of ghosts on to him.
  • Spider-Man:
    • Harry Osborn, shortly before his original death in the comics, claimed that Spider-Man only tried to 'destroy' the Osborn family because he resented their 'stable' family dynamic while he had been a burden on relatives who never wanted him, Harry's mind now so twisted that he was incapable of recognizing Norman's flaws as a parent.
    • J. Jonah Jameson's distrust of Spider-Man is often portrayed as him projecting his own cynicism and selfishness onto Spider-Man, concluding he has some sort of secret self-serving agenda.
  • Wonder Woman (1987): Circe believes everyone, including Wonder Woman, is as cynical and cruel as she is and tries to prove it, first by trying to make Diana kill a mind-controlled Superman and then by making Diana kill Circe herself on live television. Both attempts fail, and Diana retorts that Circe is really angry over feeling rejected and alone all her life and is simply projecting her own feelings onto other people.
  • The Transformers: More Than Meets the Eye: Getaway falls into this while lecturing Riptide, claiming that the main characters didn't take Riptide with them because they looked down on him for being unintelligent...at which point Riptide proves he's not as stupid as Getaway thinks he is by immediately pegging this as his captor's Inferiority Superiority Complex at work.
    Getaway: D'you know why Team Megatron lost interest in you? D'you know why they didn't take you to Necroworld? Clue: it's because you're not like them. Brainstorm, Ratchet, Nightbeat, Skids. They're smart guys, Riptide. And you... you're really not.
    Riptide: I'm not a psychiatrist either but I'm pretty sure this conversation says more about you than me.

    Films — Animation 
  • This is the central character trait and biggest Fatal Flaw of Frollo in Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
    Clopin: Judge Claude Frollo longed to purge the world of vice and sin
    And he saw corruption everywhere — except within.
  • In Kung Fu Panda 2, Lord Shen tells Po that his parents hated him even though there is no evidence to back this up; Shen, however, believes his own parents hated him.
  • In Tangled:
    Rapunzel: I've spent my entire life hiding from people who would use me for my power— when I should have been hiding from you!

    Films — Live Action 
  • In 12 Angry Men, the defendant is accused of killing his own father, and Juror 3 is absolutely certain that he's guilty. When this is challenged, he goes on a rant about the pain of an ungrateful child who turns on you despite everything you've done for him. It becomes painfully evident that he's actually reacting to the pain of his strained relationship with his own son. When 3 realizes what he's doing, he breaks down into tears and changes his verdict to not guilty.
  • In Boyhood, Olivia tends to project her own flaws onto her daughter Samantha, angrily lecturing her for having a "bullshit attitude" and her selfishness, two things that apply to Olivia herself and she tends to ignore the fact that she consistently shows more preference to Mason Jr. Samantha even calls her out on it.
  • The Dark Knight: In the climax, the Joker subjects two ferries — one carrying civilians, the other carrying inmates — to a "social experiment"; both boats have a detonator that will set off explosives on the other ferry. The first ferry to blow up the other will live. Ultimately, the passengers of both ferries cannot bring themselves to kill the other to save their lives much to the Joker's shock. This leads to Batman saying this:
    What were you trying to prove? That deep down, everyone's as ugly as you? You're alone!
  • In The Frighteners, Agent Dammers claims that Frank's efforts are all based around his own pathetic need for self-gratification, Dammers' mental issues and Wrong Genre Savvy leaving him incapable of acknowledging that Frank is genuinely trying to stop a killer ghost, as opposed to Dammers' belief that Frank is a killer psychic.
  • In Irreconcilable Differences, Lucy tells Casey at her emancipation trial, "I know why you want to divorce your father. I know you never got over his abandoning us." Casey replies, "No, Mom, you never got over his abandoning us."
  • Marvel Cinematic Universe:
    • The Avengers: Loki's default mode in the film.
      • He gives the crowd of Germans a lecture on how the mad scramble for power and identity diminishes their life's joy, something he is reluctant to admit about himself.
      • He refers to Bruce Banner/Hulk as a "mindless beast" that "makes play he's still a man," asks how desperate Nick Fury is to summon "such lost creatures" to defend him and constantly taunts Banner with looks. When Black Widow calls Loki a monster he just replies "No, you've brought the monster." In Thor, Loki called himself a monster after finding out his true parentage, and in Thor: The Dark World he says that Thor must be truly desperate to come to him for help.
      • During his speech to Black Widow, he's as much talking about himself as he's talking about her. Bonus points for showing his own reflection in the glass that separates them:
        Loki: Your ledger is dripping, it's gushing red. [...] You lie and kill in the service of liars and killers. You pretend to be separate, to have your own code, something that makes up for the horrors. But they are a part of you, and they will never go away!
    • And again in Thor: The Dark World, where he warns Thor about potentially losing Jane, while he himself is still mourning their mother's death:
      Loki: You'll never be ready! The only woman whose love you prized will be snatched from you!
  • In What About Bob?, Dr. Marvin tells Dr. Tomsky, "You've been duped by a textbook narcissist, a brilliant sociopath!", right after trying to get Bob admitted to a mental hospital on false pretenses.

    Literature 
  • Everything I Never Told You deals with this trope via how the Lee family treat each other. They all constantly project their own issues onto each other instead of communicating about their feelings. For instance, Lydia is the favorite child because James and Marilyn project their hopes and dreams onto her - popularity for James and academic success for Marilyn and remain oblivious to the fact that Lydia is only trying to live up to their expectations to make her parents happy, not because she wants to herself. Meanwhile James and Nath have a very tense relationship because James sees himself as a boy in Nath and resents him for being weak and nerdy like he was. Only Hannah is exempt from this and that's only because her family never pay any attention to her. Outside the family, Nath's animosity towards Jack is that he perceives Jack's behavior towards him as being mockery when it's actually his own insecurity leading him to jump to assume the worst in his classmate and he's totally unaware Jack had a crush on him for a very long time and used his friendship with Lydia as an excuse to get closer to Nath.
  • Harry Potter: Snape's attitude towards Harry is part this, part Sins of the Father, as he and Harry's father James hated each other from day one. Thing is, from what we see of Snape's past it's easy to spot that the two were no different from each other while at school, and arguably Snape was the worse of the two given that he loved to dabble with The Dark Arts while James firmly refused them, even saving Snape from a prank from Sirius that could have killed him. The fact that Snape loved Lily but she ultimately married James because he eventually cleaned up his act lends credence to Snape not only projecting James' bad traits on Harry, but also his own, given that James eventually grew out of them while Snape didn't.
  • Katniss tends to do this a lot in The Hunger Games. For example, in Catching Fire, she insists that the other Tributes are out to get her and Peeta and that they cannot be trusted...but the first thing Katniss does upon entering the Arena is try to kill the other Tributes and she plots about backstabbing them several times, with the justification that it's to save Peeta.
  • Hurog: The villainous characters are very prone to this. Ward's father regularly beat him, so violently that Ward took some brain damage (he still speaks very slowly) and decided to exaggerate it by Obfuscating Stupidity. There was no sensible reason to attack Ward, but the father had offed his own father for Klingon Promotion, and was now afraid Ward would do the same. Then there is king Jakoven, who is a chronic murderer of innocent people, which is, hilariously enough, caused by his paranoia about others planning things against him. (In part. It's safe to assume he's a jerk, too) Each and every villain assumes that Ward would kill his whole family to inherit castle Hurog. While Ward does want to inherit Hurog very much, he would never kill his family over it, but as the villains themselves would, of course, do it, it is "obvious" to them that, of course, that must be what he is planning.
  • Judge Dee: The father of a newly-married woman comes barging into the tribunal to vociferously accuse the father of the groom of having abducted his daughter for his own obscene ends. It's a clue that the man has... issues... with his daughter, and his status as the Big Bad is not much of a surprise.
  • The Lord of the Rings: A big part of the reason the plan to destroy the Ring ultimately works is because Sauron is so arrogant and cynical that he projects his own lust for power onto everyone else. He doesn't bother setting any sort of guard around Mount Doom nor watching it closely, despite it being the only thing that can destroy the One Ring (and him by extension) simply because he doesn't even consider the possibility someone would want to destroy it, believing the only reason someone would carry it is to try and use its power for themselves. And when he turns Denethor against the Fellowship by hinting Gandalf simply wants to conquer Middle Earth himself, the narration notes that it isn't a mere lie to cause division; Sauron genuinely believes it to be true.
  • Northanger Abbey: Sheltered, kind-hearted Catherine Morland generally projects her own honest nature onto others, never thinking that someone could be manipulating her. While this causes her quite a bit of trouble in society, it is also what endears her to her love interest, Henry, who admires her guilelessness in comparison to his own greedy, domineering father.
  • Grand Inquisitor Zhaspahr Clyntahn of Safehold tends to project his own Evil Can Not Comprehend Good mentality on others. His second in command, Wyllym Rayno, even lampshades the act as projection when Clyntahn describes the Church's Captain-General as a weak-willed coward, jumping at shadows and wanting to pull his troops back to safety immediately after Rayno recognizes that Clyntahn, at least subconsciously, fears the Church will lose the war. Church Treasurer Rhobair Duchairn notes much the same when Clyntahn proclaims, without irony, that "men who've sold their souls have every reason to murder true servants of God and then lie about their victims to justify their bloody actions."
  • The Stormlight Archive: Sadeas assumes that everyone is secretly as bloodthirsty and manipulative as he is, just that they try to hide it because he's better at the game than they are. This leads to him getting blindsided several times; at the end of the second book, he tells Adolin about his plans to kill Adolin's father, assuming that they'll wage a bloody civil war for a few years and eventually become staunch allies. But they're alone with no witnesses at the time, so Adolin just kills him on the spot.
  • A Song of Ice and Fire: The Lannisters do this a lot.
    • Tywin married for love, and yet demands his children enter into loveless unions to suit his own family ambitions. He hates his son Tyrion for frequenting prostitutes which is something he is equally guilty of.
    • Jaime and Cersei both call each other a "golden fool". In both cases it's true, but neither recognizes it equally in themselves.
    • Let's look at the way Tyrion describes Cersei: "And she is greedy. Greedy for power, for honor, for love." This is an accurate characterization of Cersei—but it's also an equally accurate a characterization of himself.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Khofit, a contestant on the second season of the Israeli Beauty and the Geek had a pet pug she would obviously project her negative emotions on. In a particular low point, when the local satire show Eretz Nehederet featured an impression of her and her dog in one of their skits, she said she wasn't insulted, but her pug was insulted because the pug used in the skit was fat.
  • CSI: Crime Scene Investigation: In the episode "Genetic Disorder", the Victim of the Week is found in the bedroom of coroner Al Robbins while his wife is in the house. Drawing on his own experience of cheating and divorce, Brass assumes that the wife is having an affair and disregards any of the conflicting evidence until the very end. When the truth becomes apparent, Brass apologizes to Robbins personally for seeing his marriage in Robbins and letting that cloud his judgement.
  • In Loki, this is Loki's default psychological defence, just like in The Avengers:
    • He states that for most people "choice breeds shame and uncertainty and regret", because others always take wrong paths. When Mobius asks if Loki is an exemption from this rule, Loki insults Mobius to avoid answering the question.
    • When he watches a video of his supposed death in Avengers: Infinity War, it looks like his future self is saying "you will never be a god" to the Variant Loki rather than to Thanos. The worst insult Loki tossed at Thanos when he died was the thing he himself feared the most.
    • He initially accuses the TVA of being a fraud, the weak who claim divinity and who've conjured a cruel elaborate trick to control others through fear. After seeing the recording of the future events of his life and his eventual death, the disillusioned and broken Loki repeats this diatribe word for word, but now he is referring to himself.
  • Lucifer (2016): A Running Gag throughout the series is that whenever the titular character gets psychological advice from his therapist, he finds a way to shift the blame for what she's describing onto pretty much whomever he's angry at that week.
  • Tiger King: Jeff Lowe describes his first meeting with Joe Exotic as the latter sizing up "his next victim". While Joe did value his association with Jeff simply for what he assumed Jeff was worth financially, given Jeff's own status as a very skilled Con Man who later took over the zoo entirely, this was probably going through his own mind at the time as well. In the aftershow, he also mocks James Garretson for being a Fat Bastard (jokingly calling him a "sexy man") despite being an unattractive Dirty Old Man himself who's very insecure about his own baldness.
  • The White Lotus: After Rachel leaves him, Shane angrily calls her a baby. She firmly retorts that he's the real baby, being coddled by his mother and throwing a fit over being put in the wrong room, despite getting an equally good one.

    Music 
  • Could be the point of these lines in Voltaire's "Future Ex Girlfriend":
    "And no-one cares that you love Keanu
    Oh, what's the difference anyway,
    Everybody knows he's gay
    Oh, all right, I don't really know that,
    But let's face it, he's too hot to be straight."

    Roleplay 
  • In Dawn of a New Age: Oldport Blues, Benedict has internalized all of his father's abuse under layers and layers of lies, and as a result doesn't believe that anyone else is truthful either.

    Toys 
  • This is what the viewer is supposed to do when watching Hello Kitty. Without a mouth, the viewer can project their own feelings upon Kitty.

    Visual Novels 

    Web Animation 
  • Red vs. Blue: Locus tends to assume that people he feels are similar to him have a similar 'Just Following Orders' thought process. Agent Washington regrets that period of his life, Sigma (and by extension, the Meta) wanted to Become a Real Boy instead of becoming a weapon, and Agent Maine before Sigma drove him mad followed orders because he believed they served the greater good; he felt that following orders blindly would make him a slave instead of a soldier. Wash eventually catches on and bluntly spells out that Locus's projection is just an excuse to not confront the guilt for everything he's done.
  • RWBY: Adam Taurus projects quite a few of his own character flaws onto Blake. He accuses her of cowardice, but he abandoned his own men at Haven Academy to be arrested while he escaped; the White Fang turned on him for doing that. He also calls her selfish, but he is the one determined to stalk her across the continent just to drag her back to his side regardless of what he wants. Blake calls him delusional.

    Webcomics 
  • In Ask Frisk and Company, when the AFAC version of Chara meets the Chara from Ask Drunk Chara, they immediately accuse their counterpart of trying to run away from their problems. Drunk Chara is actually The Atoner who is trying to make up for his actions by being a better person than he was during the Genocide Run, while AFAC!Chara is trying to destroy the world largely because they don't want to confront the fact that their Genocide Run was entirely their own fault (and can't be blamed on humanity being inherently evil or something else like that). When askers point this fact out, AFAC!Chara has a Villainous Breakdown, which culminates in a Despair Event Horizon.
  • Projection very strongly colours how Magus of El Goonish Shive views Ellen. Ellen is an Opposite-Sex Clone of Elliot who shares all of his memories up to the point of her creation. Magus is an alternate universe version of Ellen who happens to be a trans-man. As such, Magus assumes incorrectly that Ellen must identify as male.
  • In Shifty Look's Katamari, Ace constantly accuses the Prince of taking all the credit and being a total glory hound who can't stand not being the center of attention. In reality, Ace is the one who's completely desperate for attention, and is so self-centered that his response to finding out that one of his cousins needs his help is "What's in it for me?"
  • Nebula: Mercury immediately jumps to the conclusion that Sun's as angry as he is at the idiocy of the other planets as soon as Sun mentions feeling weird around them, and starts to rant about their faults until Sun cuts him off and says that no, that's really not what he was going to say.
  • Paranatural:
    • Forge goes on a long rant to Spender about how Spender's Well-Intentioned Extremist tendencies will cause nothing but pain for everyone around him. While Spender is a Well-Intentioned Extremist, it's blatantly obvious that Forge is projecting; he's yelling at Spender for Spender leaving his kids in danger—even though the only reason they're in danger is because Forge damaged their vehicle without considering the consequences.
      Spender: Maybe some forethought then would have prevented the problem you're so keen to make my responsibility.
    • Projecting is a very common theme throughout the series. The villains are the worst about it, but even the main characters tend to assume people share their flaws—and then lash out at someone they perceive as being too similar to themselves. Max calls this "projectance"... and so does everyone else.
  • Sluggy Freelance: Gwynn thinks Torg is out to get her and can't be trusted not to do and say nasty things behind her back. That only describes herself in respect to him — really he thinks highly of her and would never be intentionally malicious (unintentionally is another matter). On the other side of the coin, Torg thinks their fighting is not serious — which would only be true if she could take it as well as he can.
  • xkcd: "Projecting" does it in a meta way: "Like a lot of you, I have a real problem with projection."

    Web Original 

    Real Life 
  • There's a Spanish proverb, "cree el ladrón que todos son de su condición", that translates to "the thief believes everyone is like him".
  • Hell, the whole point of the Audience Surrogate is this trope.
  • Fandom Rivalry often takes form in this, especially when particularly toxic parts of a fandom get involved and Fan Hater is invoked. It's not uncommon for people to complain and accuse the fans of the rival work of the very same things they themselves do, even in the same breath.
  • Common romantic advice: 9 times out of 10, the partner who's overly concerned with your faithfulness to the relationship is the one cheating on you.
  • If one has interacted with people with extreme bigotry, it's easy to notice this as a means used to morally justifying their views. To them, their bigotry is justified because the people they're bigoted against (IE, another race, gender, sexual identity, etc.) are the real bigoted ones, so it's completely OK to vote against them having rights and hate them. They also assume that moderates and people in their group who aren't bigoted are just lying and secretly, everyone hates the other side and are just being too polite/cowardly to admit it. The idea of not being racist/sexist/homophobic/etc is completely alien to them, so they simply don't believe that there are people who genuinely believe in equality.
  • Many stereotypes developed by racists toward marginalized groups (particularly black people) come across as this. Minorities have been accused by bigots of being lazy (when colonization was built on slave labor) and violent (as if, once again, colonization wasn't essentially attempted genocide against the natives of whatever nation the colonials had landed on).
  • When Nazi Germany invaded Soviet Russia in 1941, the Red Army's dispositions could not have been more ideal: instead of withdrawing his forces inward and forcing the Germans to attenuate their supply lines and risk being caught in the winter (similar to how Napoleon's invasion failed), Josef Stalin left large contingents of troops garrisoning the Eastern European territories (in Poland, Finland, and the Baltics) which had been ceded to Russia by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939. As a result, the Germans were able to drive straight through the Soviets' defenses and envelop and capture huge numbers of Soviet troops before advancing into the Russian interior. Historians later theorized that Stalin, having won the territories from Nazi Germany, assumed that Adolf Hitler would focus on recapturing them, since that was what Stalin would do in Hitler's place.

 
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