Displacement — Definitions and Examples

In the latest work by Robert Pretlow and Suzette Glasner, “Reconceptualization of eating addiction and obesity as displacement behavior and a possible treatment,” the authors define displacement behavior as…

[… ] a biobehavioral mechanism that allows an animal to deal with situations that cannot readily be faced nor avoided, or that are thwarting.

The reason for talking about this is that it may explain compulsive overeating, sometimes referred to as eating addiction. Dr. Pretlow and his co-author go on to describe the behavior as irrepressible, and elaborate on its cause:

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. Moving the opposing drives out of equilibrium, by resolving the person’s underlying problems/stressful situations, theoretically should mitigate the displacement mechanism and addictive overeating.

It is interesting to look back at previous concepts of displacement behavior and other ideas that have been associated with it. Pioneer ethologist Niko Tinbergen considered the example of two herring gulls both considering the same piece of real estate for their nesting grounds. The supposition here is that each bird has an equal desire to attack the rival, and to run away. Then, one of them starts picking at the grass — or maybe both. A later author explained,

Tinbergen found that this was really part of the pattern of nest-building; and it appeared that when the drive to defend the nesting territory was frustrated by an opposing drive, part of the pent-up “energy” splashed over, so to speak, in isolated actions which were part of the sequence normally expressing quite a different drive, that of building the nest.

On the other hand, building a nest is more closely related to scouting out a good nest location, than it is to anything else, so to describe it as “quite a different drive” seems not quite accurate. And yet, so many in the field insist that displacement activity is, by definition, irrelevant, inconsequential, inappropriate, and out-of-context — just random energy dissipation, without significance. Pet specialist Amy Martin throws this light on it:

Observing a single action, behavior, or posture is not enough information to accurately interpret an animal’s behavior. A displacement activity might indicate eustress, distress, and/or fear… or not.

What the scientist is describing are displacement behaviors. These behaviors are allowing the gulls to avoid conflict. They are a form of clear communication within their species, and the behaviors work for the gulls. Our companion animals are doing this all the time with us, and others at home, but we fail to recognize it.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Reconceptualization of eating addiction and obesity as displacement behavior and a possible treatment,” LinkSpringer.com, 06/22/22
Source: “Doin’ the Displacement,” ConsciousCompanion2012.com/August 2015
Image by Michael Clarke Stuff/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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