In Search of Addiction’s Roots, Part 2

The previous post went into the question of why researchers feel okay about labeling animals’ actions as “inappropriate” when they are just examples of displacement behavior, which is not necessarily a bad thing. If the animal picks a non-violent alternative, even one that only works sometimes, how could that be deemed a failure?

Dueling instincts

An animal has an inborn drive to care for its progeny, but in many species, there is also a proclivity to watch out for and protect the lives of any others of its kind. When an animal is challenged or threatened by a member of its own species, that same protective impulse may kick in, despite the momentary threat of personal violence and the potential extinction of one’s own chain of heredity.

If reverting to a displacement behavior can prevent some violence in the animal world, maybe that is all part of the Big Scheme of Things, too. Some might ask, who gave humans the right to designate avoidance as inappropriate?

Maybe over the millennia, animals have devised little codes that translate to “Do you really want to have a territorial fight right now? Why don’t we just skip it?” and “You’re right. It’s too nice of a day.” Does sleeping or playing dead ever work out? Maybe it’s code for a compromise, like, “Okay, I’ll call you Alpha Boss in front of the others, if you’ll just go away right now.” How much conciliation or compromise or “working it out” actually happens in the wild, and if it does, what’s wrong with that?

Quoting again from Dr. Pretlow’s “A Unified Theory of Addiction,”

It is thought to be due to rechanneling of overflow brain energy to another drive (e.g., grooming drive, feeding drive) when two drives, e.g., fight or flight, equally oppose each other. Nervous energy builds up in the brain to either deal with or avoid the situation, and this excess mental energy is “displaced” to the addictive behavior.

There it is again, the assumption that the most widespread and prevalent oppositional pairing of drives is “fight or flight.” But apparently, there are lots of other drives. How would it sound if someone said, “When two drives, e.g., feeding or sex, equally oppose each other, nervous energy builds up in the brain to either deal with or avoid the situation, and this excess mental energy is ‘displaced’ to the addictive behavior.”

But in humans, a conflict between two drives doesn’t have to get all drastic, or end in carnage. They can decide, “Okay, let’s have sex first and then go out for dinner.” And nobody gets hurt. When a person is in a quandary, a dilemma, or a state of uncertainty about what to do about a difficult situation, there are a few different ways to go.

One is to stay there and stew for a while longer. Another is to convert that overflow mental energy into something else, like a voracious appetite for food, or an overwhelming urge to get drunk or smash something. Another is to displace it into an activity that, while it may not have any effect on the immediate problem, is neutral or even positive, like running around the block a few times. The most appropriate and helpful, of course, is to address the problem.

Your responses and feedback are welcome

Source: “A Unified Theory of Addiction,”, 03/09/23
Image by BY 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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