Displacement Questions

In a paper titled “The displacement mechanism: a new explanation and treatment for obesity,” Dr. Pretlow described the traditional notion of displacement, which seems to include such concepts as textbook explanations of how displacement behavior can occur in connection with feeding. For instance,

Both male turkeys and cocks when fighting, will suddenly stop and go eat, if food is available, even though they are not hungry, and then go back to fighting again.

One can see why a novice might wonder if there is more to this than meets the eye. Hunger is a very subjective sensation. When scientists observe this stop-and-start fighting behavior, how do they know whether a bird is hungry or not? It seems like a large assumption to make.

What seems like another possibly unwarranted assumption, is that fight and flight are the only two “appropriate” responses. Maybe doing nothing at all should be designated as an acceptable reply; as part of nature. Sometimes, a bird does stand still.

But even in that case, the scientists seem to think there are only three correct natural responses when a bird is challenged to fight: either fly away, jump in there and mix it up, or stand frozen. But to eat, or straighten its feathers, or pick at a nearby stalk of grass, these activities are deemed “inappropriate” in what seems like quite an arbitrary and judgmental way.

A missing dimension?

Traditionally, displacement activity is defined as normal behavior that happens out of context and is irrepressible. Again, one might ask, “How do the observers know for sure that the bird is trying hard to repress its urge to pick at a grass stalk, but then does it anyway under an irresistible compulsion?” This too seems like a large assumption. These assumptions turn “context” into a rather fuzzy and inchoate notion.

Dr. Pretlow notes that…

[…] addictive behavior doesn’t make sense to the person involved nor to others around them. For example, why binge eat or get drunk when the boss yells at you? It is out-of-context behavior; the behavior doesn’t fit with the situation at hand.

There might be a footnote to the idea that addictive behavior does not make sense to the person involved. The person might feel differently about it at a later time, like when they’re at a 12-step meeting, confessing how they stole their little sister’s birthday money. But it probably did make ultimate sense when they were doing it, because nothing makes more sense to an addict than getting the next fix — no matter what kind of objectively atrocious behavior that might involve.

Whose job is it to decree whether behavior fits with the situation at hand? If a person in a particular “set and setting” is doing that behavior, then it is in context.

At a fancy church wedding with 200 guests, changing one’s mind at the altar is certainly not deemed to be “in-context” behavior. And yet, human beings have done it. And if saying “no” even at that late moment saved the bride, the groom, and their potential children from lives of misery, it was the right move. To say that behavior does not fit or is out of context — that’s a judgment call.

(To be continued…)

Your responses and feedback are welcome!
Image by Mark Freeth/CC BY 2.0

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

FAQs and Media Requests: Click here…

Profiles: Kids Struggling with Weight

Profiles: Kids Struggling with Obesity top bottom

The Book

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.

Food & Health Resources