The Mysteries of Displacement Behaviors

Canine expert Laura VanArendonk Baugh says “fight and flight are probably the final stages in stress reaction, chosen when other coping mechanisms are not perceived to be working.” The implication here is that volition is involved. This suggests that when milder coping mechanisms are not doing the job, the will can still be exerted to keep a lid on, or to fight, or to flee.

In other words, the person who feels threatened has the intention of putting on the brakes, so the encounter does not progress to violence. The disgrace of flight would be an equally bad outcome. Consciously or subconsciously, in this transaction the victim (or about-to-be victim) still retains the belief that either fight or flight can be “chosen,” as Baugh suggests.

This is interesting, because another school of thought holds that fight and flight are the two top-rank possibilities, being instinctive and instantaneous. In the human world, it is probably a little of both. We run into a lot of situations where danger is present, and different circumstances bring different options.

A dark analogy

It’s the difference between a mugger and a con artist. The con artist lives in the middle ground of displacement behavior, pulling excuses and fabrications from a hat, one after another, with the cooperation of the victim, who is anxious to avoid arriving at the stage where either fight or flight are indicated.

Conversely, the violent street criminal, if smart, wants to preclude any possibility for middle ground, negotiation, distraction, or any other nonsense. The victim has no choice of range in response. Intermediate coping mechanisms are not even on the table. The thief takes what he or she wants and leaves the scene.

A very, very poor choice of method

When faced with stress, which the body interprets pretty much the same as an assailant with a hatchet, far too many humans use one of those coping mechanisms that can’t really be characterized as “working.” One of its names is compulsive overeating. This coping mechanism causes limitless human misery, and strains the economies of even the most prosperous of the compassionate nations.

Science knows that obesity has to be caught young, because the earlier it starts and the longer it continues, the more difficult it is to reverse. This is why the whole subject of displacement activities or behaviors is so tantalizing. It’s like a ball of twine with many loose threads sticking out.

Any one of them, if disentangled from the mass, might lead to a magical clue or a silver-bullet cure. Any one of these oddball facts about animals might be the key to the kingdom, somehow. If we understand a bird that picks out its own feathers, maybe we can understand the girl who pulls out her own hair.

If we can help the hair-pulling girl, maybe we can help the boy who puts everything edible into his mouth. Some people think of these activities as addictions. This quotation is from a scientific paper about students from an alternative high school:

Theoretically, as an example, one might think of these 11 addictions as grouping to reflect active-nurturance (e.g., Internet, shopping, work), active-pleasure seeking (e.g., sex, love, exercise), and passive-pleasure seeking (alcohol, cigarette, other drug use, eating) motives.

Does this really mean anything to another type of expert, who believes that designating groupings is a pointless task, because all addictions are one? All addictions have one purpose, to avoid pain. All displacement behaviors have one purpose, to avoid pain. From this philosophical point of view, fancy labels are baloney, and paying people to think them up is a waste of precious resources.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “The Four ‘Fs’ of Fear,”, 10/01/13
Source: “Prevalence and co-occurrence of addictive behaviors among former alternative high school youth,”, 02/03/14
Image by QUOI Media Group via Flickr/Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 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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