Displacement Behavior in the Animal Kingdom

As we have mentioned, yesterday Dr. Pretlow spoke at the annual Regional Conference of the World Obesity Federation. He presented some ideas about displacement activity, for instance:

Displacement activity is out-of-context behavior, behavior that is inappropriate for the situation at hand. It occurs universally among the animal kingdom… Displacement activity stems from situations of major opposing or thwarted behavioral drives, e.g. fight or flight.

Even an amoeba knows to avoid pain, or at least to avert damage. It may only have one cell, but it possesses the means to detect and avoid noxious stimulation. This mechanism, called nociception, functions as an alarm system that warns of existential danger. When an amoeba senses potential harm to its physical integrity, it moves away. Its arsenal of threat responses is limited to one rather unsatisfactory but often sufficient defense, namely flight.

As organisms become grow increasingly complex, they develop more complicated threat responses, all the way up to humans. Researchers have identified several human threat responses, although some of their arbitrary categories may overlap.

So far, they have come up with fight, flee, freeze, feed, fornicate, fool around, fidget, and faint. Even laughter has been proposed as a displacement activity, but lacks a suitable f-word. Maybe “fun”?

As above, so below

From the amoeba on up, every organism desires to escape a bad feeling and replace it with a good feeling, or at least a neutral feeling — or if that is not achievable, at least a different bad feeling. Is flight possible? A teenager might run away from home. Faced with adult cruelty, is a violent reaction unthinkable? Sometimes children invert the fight impulse and turn it back upon themselves with cuts or burns.

The human body does not deal much in nuance, and interprets deprivation of the TV remote device, or receiving a bad haircut, as a threat similar to being stalked by a tiger. Only the degree is different. But in either case, anxiety arises, coupled with an urge to do something to mitigate the dilemma. As Dr. Pretlow points out,

Displacement activity is a powerful mechanism. For example, a stressed dog or cat may lick its paws to the point of damage…

A dog-savvy website lists possible reasons for excessive paw-licking — dry skin, allergy, yeast infection, arthritis, or other pain. And then, there is anxiety:

If your dog is anxious or stressed, it might lick itself similar to the way humans bite nails when they’re nervous; it gives them relief. Take note if your pup starts licking its paws around the same time every single day, like right before a nap or going to bed. That’s a big sign that the licking is behavioral… Consider your own stress level too — you might be the problem.

Licking the paw pads to rawness undoubtedly hurts — but it is a different hurt, and apparently one that can supply relief. As the old saying goes, “A change is as good as a rest.” A dog that compulsively licks its paws is not seeking pleasure, but avoiding pain. The damage matters not, because the original, existential pain of threat has been circumvented and replaced by a different and somehow more acceptable pain.

Who knows? Animals may experience a rudimentary, instinctual version of a sentiment that humans sometimes express: Self-infliction of harm has more dignity than passive acceptance of the damage dealt out by fate.

A human who compulsively plucks hairs out of his or her own head is certainly not seeking pleasure, but avoiding the pain of anxiety. A person who compulsively consumes doughnuts may present a deceptive picture to the outsider, but in a very real sense, that person is not actually seeking pleasure but merely avoiding pain.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Can amoebas feel pain?,” Study.com, undated
Source: “Is Your Dog Licking Paws Uncontrollably? Here’s What You Can Do About It,” NaturalDogCompany.com, 05/28/19
Image by Tim Menzies/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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