Displacement Is a Multifactorial Thing

Not surprisingly, this whole topic started with Sigmund Freud and his talk of a displacement mechanism, back in 1913. Childhood Obesity News will look at several of the other works that helped form thoughts and opinions, in the minds of both professionals and the general public, about these ideas.

As we have seen, early displacement theorist Dr. Juan D. Delius opined that, as yet, there have been no defining rules for the condition. In looking back to some previous writers on the subject, perhaps it will become evident why he thought that. With all due respect, the conclusion that the subject had such fuzzy boundaries is reminiscent of Judge Potter Stewart’s pronouncement about hardcore pornography: “I know it when I see it.” This is the sort of distinction that separates the hard sciences from the soft sciences.

Dr. Pretlow once had occasion to remind a colleague that “contributions to the literature largely ceased in the 1970s.” They were talking about displacement, and a perhaps inadequate amount of discussion of it. This happens in life, sometimes. Promising leads are dropped because of — well, many reasons. Funding resources shift, and that is often due to a change in the priorities of a fickle public. In any field it is important, for many reasons, to check back on the efforts of earlier experts. Every conscientious researcher is part historian.

In 1959, the British Journal of Psychology published Dr. Dalbir Bindra’s interpretation of the “displacement phenomenon.” It was recognized that, in certain scenarios involving conflict and frustration, animals would do things that seemed illogical to scientists. It was assumed that the purpose was to “displace the ‘energy’ or ‘drive’ from one reaction system to another.” The displacement phenomena possibilities fell into two categories:

[A]nimals obstructed in the execution of a particular ongoing or customary activity tend either to direct the same activity toward another object or to engage in a completely different activity.

Dr. Bindra called these interpretations “vague and ad hoc,” at best providing “only a redundant description of the observed phenomena.” His idea was that so-called displacements activities are “a special case of the general question of the factors determining the occurrence of any activity that exists in an animal’s repertoire. ”

It was generally believed that displacement activities arose from three scenarios, which Delius enumerated: “motivational conflict, frustration of consummatory acts and physical thwarting of performance.”

As we have seen, those interested in this topic have tended to say there are two possible outcomes when an animal is thwarted or threatened; two possible meanings of “displacement.” The first is the same (or “same general class”) activity directed toward a different object. The second occurs if the animal “shows some other, “irrelevant,” but fairly specific, activity.” It was fair of Bindra to place “irrelevant” in quotation marks, because the question has been raised whether humans are qualified to judge relevance in a realm so unknown to them.

So, each of the three scenarios has two ways it could go at the next stage. That unfolds to six possibilities. Additionally, Bindra wrote,

In particular, it is suggested that all instances of displacement phenomena can be adequately accounted for in terms of the operation of three factors: (a) an increase in the level of arousal of the animal brought about by the obstructing event, (b) the relative habit strengths of the various activities in the repertoire of the animal, and (c) the nature of the sensory cues provided by the altered stimulus situation.

So each of the six possible activities also includes those three possible branches, making a total of 18 plausible definitions of displacement behavior.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “An interpretation of the “displacement phenomenon,” Baillement.com, 1959

Images by aeneastudio, Enrico, and poppet with a camera/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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