To Build Consensus, Part 3

Apparently, to a bird confronted by a hostile bird, a cue could be anything in the environment, like dry grass. It is normal for a bird to pick at dry grass, in the nest-building time of year, but if it is not nest-building time, it is a displacement activity with a different specific purpose: to use up what could otherwise be destructive energy. The energy becomes downgraded from dangerous to merely futile; the practical equivalent of a person binge-eating in response to a problem at work.

Here are some things Dr. Pretlow and co-author Suzette Glasner have written about the role of cues in displacement:

The displacement mechanism is triggered by sensory cues. Initially, a specific sensory cue (e.g., food taste) suggests to the brain that the behavior or drive (e.g., feeding) associated with the cue might be used as a displacement behavior to deal with problems/stressors/thwarting and overflow brain energy.

[H]enceforth similar cues trigger the displacement mechanism to activate that drive behavior (eating) in stressful situations.
[T]he displacement behavior may become excessive and destructive (e.g., overeating/obesity).

Rechanneling diverts the focus to a nondestructive medium…. Dealing with the displacement sources diminishes the focus on the destructive medium and cues.

We acknowledge that the reward mechanism is a central component underlying addictive eating behavior, but we posit that rewards (e.g., pleasurable food sensations and celebrations) rather act as cues to trigger the displacement mechanism, leading an individual to lose control over eating, once started.

“Displacement activity may explain addictive behavior”

When a behavior is potentially life-threatening, and a creature goes ahead and does it anyway, we call it irrepressible. If a sensible person were tempted to do that harmful thing, they would not. The fact that a person knows the action is harmful, either in the moment or cumulatively, and yet does it anyway, seems proof that it is irrepressible. Because, being a sensible person, they would leave it alone if they could.

When someone tends to handle stress by displacement behavior, environmental cues are a real danger. Take, for example, a person whose couple relationship has soured, and who is throwing belongings into boxes, preparing to move out. It might be that they happen to find an old backpack with a little bit of heroin in it. It might be that this person is a recovering addict, in which case an accidental discovery like this could have really bad consequences, up to and including eventual death. But this example would be a rare, almost freakish occurrence.

If, however, that person’s problem is not heroin, but eating… the cues are everywhere. Our modern environment, especially because of omnipresent media, is jam-packed with cues that say “Eat! Eat! Eat!” At every turn, the person is confronted with stimuli that could lead to big trouble.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Reconceptualization of eating addiction and obesity as displacement behavior and a possible treatment,”, May 2022
Image by Kenneth Lu/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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