In Search Addiction’s Roots, Part 1

Dr. Pretlow has published “A Unified Theory of Addiction,” a paper presenting evidence that the universal source of addiction is the displacement mechanism. On this page, the paragraphs in red print are quotations from that work.

Displacement behavior represents a bio-behavioral mechanism that essentially allows an animal to displace stress. Theoretically, the mechanism rechannels overflow mental energy built up by the brain’s attempt either to deal with or to avoid the stressful situation.

The expression “deal with” here is encouraging, because sadly, many writers about animal behavior seem to imply that the choice is only binary; that in a jam, an animal is limited to choosing “fight or flight.” Rarely are other possibilities mentioned. However, in addition to those two, scientists have identified several other options, including freeze, feed, fornicate, fool around, fidget, and faint. Any of these could be equally valid displacement behaviors.

The energy rechanneling occurs to another behavior or drive (e.g., grooming drive), typically whatever drive or behavior is the most readily available.

But in discussing these matters, there seems to be some underlying attitude, an assumption that in the moment of stress, when an animal feels threatened, anything they might do (except maybe fight) would be incorrect in the judgmental eyes of humans. There seems to be an implication that any displacement behavior is somehow shameful or wrong, or some kind of cop-out.

Fool around or fidget

Fool around or fidget? Grooming would probably fall into one of those categories. It is something to do, that rechannels the overflow of mental energy into a behavior that certainly qualifies as “readily available.”

The word “groom” has traditionally been used by the profession, and this is unfortunate because, to a layperson, it implies a value judgment. It gives the impression that the animal is only doing something superficial, like the equivalent of a human brushing lint off its suit or waxing a mustache. But in the wild, such practices as removing nits, straightening feathers, etc. are not trivial vanity projects, but essential upkeep of the mechanism, the creature’s body.

Appropriate according to whom?

Behavioralists tend to brand all these possibilities as “inappropriate” and it is not clear why. There seems to be an assumption that stalling, for instance, in the hope that the threat might dematerialize, is shameful or wrong. But not all threats are from predators. Animals of the same species will compete over food or mates or territory. Maybe they have an equally strong inborn inclination the other way, too.

Why shouldn’t they seek to avoid conflict with their own kind, or shrink back from murdering each other — even if scientists think they are cowards, and brand their peacemaking attempts as “inappropriate”? If two birds stop glaring at each other and peck at the grain on the ground — “even if they are not hungry,” as a human observer might jot down in the notebook — why do humans feel justified in labeling that as an incorrect response?

And how do they know whether a bird is or is not hungry?

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “A Unified Theory of Addiction,”, 03/08/23
Image by amenclinicsphotos ac/CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED

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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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