Displacement, a Partial Roundup

The Mysteries of Displacement Behavior

Any one of the oddball facts about animals might be the key to the kingdom, somehow. If we understand a bird that picks out its own feathers, maybe we can understand a girl who pulls out her own hair.

All addictions have one purpose — to avoid pain. All displacement behaviors also have the same purpose. Any one of them, if disentangled from the mass, might lead to a magical clue or a silver-bullet cure. The whole subject of displacement activities is so tantalizing because it is like a ball of twine with many loose threads sticking out. Which one do we pull?

Displacement As a Concept

Many creatures have been getting along for millennia without human opinions to guide them. Maybe we don’t know everything about why animals do the things they do. They have successfully navigated the world and stayed alive to reproduce their kind for millennia, whereas the “displacement mechanism” was not heard of until Freud invented it in 1913. Quite possibly, displacement theory belongs squarely in the realm of human psychology, and animals should just be left out of it.

Displacement Phenomena, Questions, and Problems

Even decades ago, researchers faced many potential complications in their quest to pin down the notion of displacement. Dr. Dalbir Bindra was not satisfied with the party line about animals and displacement behavior, and asked some rather pointed questions. He suggested bringing in all kinds of variables, like how animal responses line up with such factors as arousal level, habit strength, and sensory cues.

Displacement Thoughts

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. Authorities disagree on how much animal behavior is actually what humans call displacement activity. Part of the difficulty is that many humans have been programmed to believe there are only two possible responses to a perceived threat, those being “fight or flight.”

The idea expanded into a doctrinal tenet that anything else an animal might do in such a situation is wrong or “inappropriate.” But some prominent researchers resist the trend toward anthropomorphizing animals, and think that ascribing to them such human emotions as “embarrassment” is a mistake. (See the photo on this page, which the artist titled “Embarrassed.”)

Displacement Is a Multifactorial Thing

Like everything else in psychology, the “displacement mechanism” started with Freud. A well-known quotation from a later authority pointed out that a thwarted animal who is prevented from engaging in a particular activity tends “either to direct the same activity toward another object or to engage in a completely different activity.” It would be difficult to envision a third alternative. Other than doing the same or different, what additional possibility exists? And doing anything different might include… anything.

Yet, many researchers in this area insist that the only orthodox responses to a threat situation are “fight or flight.” This throws every other possible response into the category of displacement behavior, which in turn signifies wrong, inappropriate, futile, and silly behavior.

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Image by Paulo Lins/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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