Displacing the Displacement, Continued

In “Reconceptualization of eating addiction and obesity as displacement behavior and a possible treatment,” Dr. Robert Pretlow and Suzette Glasner wrote about displacement behavior that it is thought to happen when two drives oppose each other, leading to “the rechanneling of overflow brain energy to another drive (e.g., feeding drive).” This conflict generates overflow energy, and displacement activity gives it someplace to go, even if the activity is irrelevant to the case, and ultimately futile in solving anything.

Case in point: The person who wants to leave a marriage will not accomplish anything good by the displacement behavior of eating to the point of obesity. It does not make staying any better, because the partner will be even more unhappy with an obese husband or wife than they were before. It doesn’t make leaving any more viable, because an obese divorced person will find it even more difficult to find a new partner, or possibly even become gainfully employed.

Normal is good

Displacement behavior is a normal behavior or drive that occurs out of context and fulfills the common understanding that the conflicting drives are rechanneled to some activity that is “most readily available at the time or is most commonly used in the animal’s repertoire.” Displacement activity provides a temporary fix at best. The person might feel a little better for a short time, but it is certainly not a cure for anything.

If the rechanneled behavior becomes destructive, it is possible for the individual to consciously rechannel the overflow mental energy to a nondestructive behavior. Examples are rechanneling to breathing behavior (by taking slow, deep breaths), rechanneling to squeezing the hands, and rechanneling to hobbies.

This opens up a huge area of possibility. Rechanneling a displacement activity into another displacement activity instead is not an ultimate cure but can be extremely helpful, and certainly preferable to the destructive, false relief afforded by consuming a bag of chips. Displacing the displacement can offer some breathing space, and if not a cessation of the problem, at least a stasis point, a way of dealing with the overflow mental energy that does not cause more destruction but offers a stalemate, a pause in the hostilities.

Doubt and reassurance

A person addicted to eating might scoff, “How is a hobby going to help?” But latching onto an absorbing interest or activity, while it may not actively constitute betterment, at least does not lead to worsening. Stasis may not in itself improve the basic problem, but is a place to put that overflow mental energy while improvement can be achieved by other means.

This is where the BrainWeighve suggestions for distraction are useful. They may only create temporary relief, but that is better than no relief at all. More importantly, temporary relief creates space for more substantial and permanent relief solutions to be implemented.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Reconceptualization of eating addiction and obesity as displacement behavior and a possible treatment,” Springer.com, 06/22/22
Image by Daniel Lobo/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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