Displacement and the Crucial Switch

The scientific-minded person tends to disparage “anecdotal evidence” and to say, “Show me the scientific evidence.” But fundamentally, they are one and the same.

In an ancient tribal society, one injured person might eat part of a plant and find that it decreases the pain. Then another person might have the same experience, and then another. If one particularly alert member of the tribe listened to these people and drew the obvious conclusion, he or she might collect that plant and then counsel other members who were in pain to eat some of it. After a while, that person who listened to anecdotal evidence and transformed it into advice would be known and respected as the group’s Healer.

That was the first scientist. Even today, even in highly structured scientific trials, the foundation is the same. Statistics are nothing but one person’s anecdotal testimony added to another person’s anecdotal testimony, and so on down the line, until a pile of them accumulates, and voilà! What do we have? Statistics!

This is how an official Study comes into being. An alert person notices that something seems to be going on, and designs a format through which the suspicion can be verified by a preponderance of Evidence. If all goes well, that pioneer is no longer just an eccentric with a feeling that “something seems to be going on.” Pursuing that feeling, by putting it through a formulaic procedure, transforms her or him into an Expert.

Examples of this phenomenon are found in Dr. Pretlow’s paper (Pretlow et al. 2020):

Anecdotally, a 20-year-old obese female was surprised that she was no longer tempted to turn into a McDonald’s drive-through once she had created plans for her difficult life situations before driving home from work.

Dr. Pretlow is working to develop “an intervention based on the displacement mechanism, adaptable for any addiction.” The aim is to help people replace harmful, dysfunctional displacements with constructive and healthy ones. In the light of all this, the writer of this page offers a personal anecdote:

I knew a man (we will call him David) in his early thirties who was intelligent and mild-mannered, and certainly nice enough, but usually rather remote and detached in social situations. One day, in the company of a few friends, David started to talk about kayaking, the activity that was obviously the passion of his life.

This was news to the rest of us, and I think the others were as stunned as I was at the transformation that took place before our eyes — because David turned into another person. He sounded different and even looked different. Describing his experiences on the water, he was incandescent with enthusiasm and pure love for the activity.

The rest of us talked it over later, and all came to the same conclusion. If someone had asked, “Would you rather have a free carton of cigarettes, or go kayaking?” David would have regarded the questioner as insane. We were convinced that “Would you rather have a case of champagne? Would you prefer a hit of the finest heroin?” or any other similar example, would have elicited the same reaction.

There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that for David, kayaking came first, last, and always. As long as he had that, there would be no danger of him ever turning into any species of addict whatsoever.

Dr. Pretlow writes,

It may be possible to consolidate the causes of different addictions and explain all addictions using a single theory. Perhaps, a universal treatment for addiction may be feasible. The displacement mechanism might be the basis for such a unified theory of addiction…

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “A Unified Theory of Addiction” by Dr. Pretlow
Image by Yves Ouellette/CC BY-ND 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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