More About Laughter As a Displacement Behavior

Many professionals see laughter as a displacement activity, with the same function as the several other behavioral alternatives, previously mentioned — fight, flee, freeze, feed, fornicate, fool around, fidget, and faint. When a creature is anxious and threatened, the bad feeling needs to be pushed away, and those are some of the options.

Canine expert Patricia McConnell often draws parallels between dogs and people. When faced with two incompatible desires, both species tend to react by manifesting displacement behaviors. About terminology, McConnell makes some very interesting points:

Note that being “stressed” is not inherently a negative state. Stress, if defined and used correctly in the biological sense, refers to being pushed out of a state physiological homeostasis, either by something negative or positive. Being excited about seeing a rock concert is as stressful as being afraid of going to the dentist.

We have probably all heard someone say, “I drink when I’m happy, I drink when I’m sad.” The same goes for eating. To celebrate victories, people consume massive feasts. To console themselves for losses, they do the same.

The uses of laughter

Laughter can be not only a defense, but a tactic. How so? A good case can be made that the bully, on some level, feels threatened, which is painful. To avoid that feeling, she chooses “fight,” and attacks the world preemptively, before it can hurt her again.

A familiar cultural figure is the little guy — or the fat guy — who survives in prison or some other hostile environment by being funny. Real laughter is involuntary, and the ability to tickle a bully’s funny-bone has genuinely saved lives. The rationale even fits with the theory.

If a potential victim is given the chance, he may not have to choose between fight and flight. If he can get the bully to laugh, there is a chance that the monster will keep him around as the court jester. The ability to (1) see something funny; (2) laugh about it; and (3) convey that thought to the bully — it all adds up to a displacement behavior that saves a life.

It triggers a complementary displacement behavior in the bully. Something bugged her and gave her a bad feeling that needed to be dispelled somehow. Violence would have been her first choice. But the victim caused the involuntary reaction of laughter, and diverted the bully onto a different track, with something new to alleviate her malaise.

Independent researcher Brad Bowins addressed this topic:

Mature defenses, including humor, sublimation, anticipation, altruism, and suppression, represent well-orchestrated composites of less mature defenses. These mature defenses involve relatively minor cognitive distortions, largely consisting of an attenuation of unwelcome experience. Humor alters the content of a potentially disturbing scenario so that it becomes lighter and more tolerable.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Stress? Fear? Or “Displacement Behavior”?,, 07/26/16
Source: “Psychological Defense Mechanisms: A New Perspective,”, April 2004
Image by 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 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.
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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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