Inspiring Ideas

The concept of displacement behavior seems to be regarded as very open to interpretation. A writer who specializes in dogs and cats pointed out that when animals do displacement behavior and when people do procrastination, it all boils down to the same thing, which is “avoidance behavior.” People and animals become confused about what to do, and respond by doing something that impartial onlookers will identify as inappropriate or wrong. The behavior itself might be perfectly normal — like eating — but the degree of appropriateness is liable to be judged.

In “Reconceptualization of eating addiction and obesity as displacement behavior and a possible treatment,” Dr. Pretlow and Suzette Glasner wrote,

Displacement behavior is a biobehavioral mechanism that allows an animal to deal with situations that cannot readily be faced nor avoided, or that are thwarting. It may explain compulsive overeating (eating addiction).

It is thought to be due to rechanneling of overflow brain energy to another drive (e.g., feeding drive) when two drives, e.g., fight or flight, equally oppose each other.

This is the reason for looking back at such pioneers as Nikolaas Tinbergen and Konrad Lorenz, who developed the foundational ideas. Regarding Lorenz’s psycho-hydraulic reservoir concept and Tinbergen’s system of hierarchical centers: Although thought to be flawed in some respects, these paradigms have not been universally rejected and are still found useful.

Moving on to a related concept, another source explains displacement activity like this:

The physiological foundations of displacement activities have been investigated only in a few cases and appear to vary from case to case. Some behavior patterns may be dependent upon the same releasing stimuli as well as upon the same motivational sources.

In describing the displacement mechanism as a basis for eating disorders, Dr. Pretlow has also written,

Theoretically, the displacement mechanism functions by rechanneling overflow mental energy to another behavior, typically whatever behavior is most readily available at the time or is most commonly used in the animal’s repertoire, e.g., feeding. If the rechanneled behavior is destructive, it is possible for the individual to consciously rechannel the overflow mental energy to a non-destructive behavior.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Doin’ The Displacement,”, 08/19/15
Source: “Reconceptualization of eating addiction and obesity as displacement behavior and a possible treatment,”, 06/22/22
Source: “Ethology,”, undated
Image by Andy Morffew/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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