Displacement Thoughts

Sometimes, a professional gently lets the regular people in on a secret: There is an ideal version of how experimental science is supposed to work; also, there is the version where things play out in real life. This difference was remarked on decades ago. Then, for a while, it seemed as if computers would make everything much more precise and inarguable. Sadly, that turned out not to be the case.

In a 1960 paper, G.I.C. Ingram quoted sociologist/scientist Harry Collins:

In general, when scientific discoveries are first made they’re messy and untidy, and they get cleaned up in retrospect. If you’re a scientist you’ll say that it all comes out in the end, because nature speaks with an unambiguous voice. Speaking as a sociologist, I’d say it’s a historical process, and the judgement of history can’t be anticipated.

In some areas, history moves slowly. Humans used to take it for granted that we knew a lot more about animals than we actually did, and to a large extent that is still true. There are police officers who have convinced themselves that they infallibly know when a suspect is lying, because of a particular “tell,” but their assumptions are not always correct.

Likewise, even the most dedicated scientists might not always have a handle on what animals are up to. As in any other field, previous theories were built upon or revised, or quietly discarded. Like any other idea, the whole displacement conversation had its enthusiasts. In 1964, H. Zeigler published “Displacement activity and motivational theory: A case study in the history of ethology.” He wrote,

Such behaviors were originally explained by reference to energy models of motivation…. [I]t is suggested that drive and energy concepts no longer serve any useful function in the study of species-specific behavior.

He not only suggested, but asserted it, because there were concepts that the motivational therapy practitioners needed to take into account. He wrote:

It is now known that the nature and intensity of such activities are primarily a function of 3 sets of variables: type and intensity of peripheral stimulation, the existence of behaviors incompatible with the activity in question, and the existence and duration of states of motivational equilibrium with respect to such incompatible behaviors.

In 2011, Dr. Dalbir Bindra mentioned again that observations of frustrated animals either doing the same activity to a different object, or doing a different activity, did not go anywhere near enough to explain things. He wrote:

Both psychologists and ethologists currently interpret these phenomena in terms of some kind of displacement mechanism, which is assumed to displace the “energy” or “drive” from one reaction system to another.

He too named three conditions under which “all instances of displacement phenomena can be adequately accounted for,” and they did not exactly line up with Zeigler’s:

In particular, it is suggested that 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.

Meanwhile, in 1967, Dr. Juan D. Delius had been back in print again to say that while several theories had been advanced to explain the causal mechanisms of displacement activities, he was not satisfied, and felt that some notions needed revision. He wrote,

Monographic treatments of the behaviour of any one species usually indicate only two or three activities which according to the judgment of the observer occur commonly as displacement. None of the theories on displacement activities gives cogent reasons why particular behaviour patterns should be more common than others as displacement activities…

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “An interpretation of the displacement phenomenon,” ResearchGate.net, April 2011
Source: “Displacement Activities and Arousal,” Nature.com, 1967
Image by Andy Morffew/CC BY 2.0

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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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