Animals, People, and Displacement Behaviors

Experts have posited several different kinds of displacement activities: fight, flee, freeze, feed, fornicate, fool around, fidget, and faint. As Dr. Pretlow says, “Displacement activity is out-of-context behavior that is inappropriate for the situation at hand, the re-channeling of overflow energy from conflicted or thwarted drives into another drive.”

Among animals, fight and flight are presumably their first instinctual choices, but instinct might also prompt them to try something else, like pretending to notice a specially tasty blade of grass. This is a stalling tactic, based on an ancestral memory that the predator might lose interest, or be diverted by a worse predator that can kick its butt. This is hope.

Humans have a more extensive palette of displacement behaviors, and an abundance of hope. A lot of therapy is founded on the idea of substituting a compulsive or addictive behavior with a non-damaging behavior. Dr. Pretlow points out a detail that not everyone seems to grasp: “This is tricky, as the energy must be re-channeled to an actual drive not just a behavior.” He will say more about this at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Regional Conference in Muscat, Oman, in December.

Will we know the clues when we see them?

The trouble with humans is that many of us are not often up against existential threats. We face not a wild boar, but an angry boss who might refuse to grant vacation time in June instead of August. We are armed with a huge assortment of displacement behaviors ranging from silly to dangerous.

If eating makes us feel safe and comfy, then in an effort to erase our tense, conflicted, threatened, bad feelings, we can eat until it turns into something that looks very much like an addiction. We can even eat ourselves to death.

Just as animal trainer Laura VanArendonk Baugh observes displacement behavior in dogs, another animal trainer Robyn Hood tracks it in both dogs and horses. She too delineates boundaries, categorizing fight and flight as responses from core instinct, while freeze, fidget, and faint are “rarely considered except in the context of behavior or attitude.” (But aren’t they all behaviors?)

Hood totally ignores feeding and fornicating, and substitutes “fidget” for “fool around.” So, what is fidgeting, and why is it germane to the subject of child obesity? Hood writes,

It is a form of displacement behavior — taking the focus off of one situation onto another. For instance, if you are trying to groom some dogs, they may roll on the floor and grab the brush in play. It is a way of displaying concern that is often not identified because the dog is not shaking nor is the dog growling or biting. Some children, and adults, fall into “fooling around” when the pressure is on.

Hood also talks about misunderstood horses who seem to be stubborn and rebellious, but who are merely trying to cope with a stressful situation. She recommends,

If you have a horse that displays this type of behavior, watch to see when it most often happens, notice what you are doing and change or stop doing it. Does the horse’s behavior stop, and then start again when you resume your behavior?

In other words, through the time-honored system of operant conditioning, let your horse train you.

Faint as a response

Hood moves on to discuss an infrequent response, fainting, where the overwhelmed horse will fall over or “simply lie down and give up.” People faint too, or sometimes stress just makes their brains go offline. When people use excessive sleep to avoid stress, it might be interpreted as a milder version of fainting. Either choice brings welcome oblivion.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “The 5 F’s — Flight, Fight, Freeze, Fidget, Faint,”, Nov 2001
Image by Bureau of Land Management via Flickr/Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

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OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

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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