Displacement Activities in Animals and Humans

As Dr. Pretlow has noted, displacement activity is found in fish, insects, birds, reptiles, and mammals. It tends to show up when a threat is felt but neither fighting nor fleeing is possible; and also, as some believe, as preparatory behavior that can ratchet up to the more active options of fighting or fleeing.

Mental and emotional stress can come from many sources, but what they have in common is that the body seems to react as it would to a physical threat. Apparently there are a number of behaviors that animals (and sometimes people) might engage in to relieve the discomfort of a threat, whether physical or intangible. People might bite their nails or pick at their skin.

A dog that compulsively licks its paws is not seeking pleasure, but avoiding pain. A person who compulsively eats potato chips is not seeking pleasure, but avoiding pain.

Looked at from a certain perspective, either one of them could be labeled as addicts. One of the displacement activities a physically threatened animal might engage is feeding. And so might a person who is threatened by unpleasant thoughts and bad feelings. In humans, comfort eating is a popular choice for relieving stress.

So, if the body only wants a displacement activity to make it feel better, why not choose something else other than feeding? In the realm of childhood obesity, could something else replace compulsive eating? Something with fewer calories and less destructive potential?

Depending on how they are defined, seven or eight candidates have been proposed as displacement behaviors: fight, flee, freeze, feed, fornicate, fool around, fidget, and faint. Psychologist neurosurgeon Karl H. Pribram, who published over 700 books and scientific publications, is credited with creating the first displacement activities list, back in the 1950s. His four choices were fight, flee, feed, and fornicate.

At canine school

Dog trainer Laura VanArendonk Baugh references the behavior expert Ted Turner, who recognizes five displacement behaviors but distinguishes between the passive one, which is freezing, and the four active ones: fight, flight, fool around, and fornicate.

From her experience with canines, Baugh learned that while some dogs simply want to play, for others it is a coping mechanism. She writes:

“Fooling around” can appear frequently as a displacement behavior, out of place and sometimes inappropriate. Have you ever been at a funeral or visitation when someone made a joke and everyone laughed too quickly, or more than the joke seemed to deserve? That is classic stress relief by “fooling around.” A bit of humor, appropriate or not, can be a coping mechanism to relieve stress.

Of course, it can go the other way, too. Introducing laughs to a tense situation can backfire, and actually raise the threat level. Baugh continues,

With dogs, fooling around often presents as intense play, such as jumping up on a person, play bows, very pushy greetings, or any over-the-top behavior. It’s easy to assume a dog is just being rude or is over-excited (and that might be the case), but sometimes it can be a desperate-to-fool-around response to fear or stress.

For humans, fooling around (in the sense implied by this context) can change things for the better. Baugh says “fight and flight are probably the final stages in stress reaction, chosen when other coping mechanisms are not perceived to be working.” She advances the theory that if stress is addressed and alleviated at the fooling around stage, escalation to fight or flight may be prevented.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “The Four ‘Fs’ of Fear,” ClickerTraining.com, 10/01/13
Image by Dmitriy K. via Flickr/Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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