A Defense Mechanism
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | August 21, 2022
Displacement is a defense mechanism that discharges unacceptable impulsive energy at easier targets.
We build up energy, be it anger or desire, and, yet, the releasing the energy on the target feeding our buildup is either socially unacceptable or fearsomely powerful. We redirect our focus, find an acceptable target, and defuse the energy on them. In psychology this is referred to as the defense mechanism displacement.
Sigmund Freud describes displacement as "transferring the instinctual aims into such directions that they cannot be frustrated by the outer world" (2018). Early in Freuds writings he observed that "affect could not only be dislocated or transposed from disturbing ideas via repression and isolation, but that it could also be reattached to other ideas via displacement" (Valliant, 1998).
T. Franklin Murphy wrote, "sometimes reacting to emotions is dangerous. The person we are angry with either intimidates or frightens us. We suppress our emotionally loaded response out of self preservation. However, we then retaliate against an easier target, diffusing emotional energy" (2021).
Displacement refers to changing the target of an impulse. Still diffusing the energy (cathexis), but redirecting energy to something other than the originating source of annoyance or frustration.
Maturity Level of Displacement
George Valliant in his meticulous research of defense mechanisms placed the different mechanisms on a continuum, categorizing the defenses by level of adaptiveness. Displacement falls in the middle of the continuum.
Today a common instrument for assessing defense mechanism, and the gold standard of defense mechanism inventories, is the Defense Mechanism Rating Scale (DMRS) (Di Giuseppe & Perry 2021).
The DMRS scores patients on 30 different defenses, placing the defenses into three categories: mature defenses, neurotic defenses, and immature defenses.
Within the three categories, seven levels of defenses are identified (2021). Displacement falls in the middle category neurotic defenses, level 5b (other neurotic). Displacement is considered a better response to discomforting emotional pushes than mechanisms listed as immature. However, we can develop better protective responses with maturity.
Discharge of Energy
Valliant wrote that "unlike the other neurotic defenses, displacement permits instinctual discharge" (1998, Kindle location, 1,841). Displacement doesn't suppress the instinctual impulse, it just redirects it. Displacement is most often associated with aggression and sexual desire.
Describing displacement, Anna Freud wrote, "prohibited forms of gratification are exchanged for other modes of enjoyment, through a process of displacement" (1992, p. 155).
Robert Trivers, a Professor of Anthropology and Biological Sciences at Rutgers University, wrote "angry with your spouse, you may be harder on your children or kick the dog, often to their surprise. It is as if your anger is incited and, looking around for targets, is blocked from the logical one, so it looks for nearby victims, preferably those smaller and less able to retaliate" (2011, Kindle location: 5,262).
A Possible Case of Displacement
A young college student killed a cop. He was raised by a strict, disciplinarian father who served as a police officer in a neighboring city. The killer, after a stressful night that included a failed reconciliation with his former girlfriend, followed and killed a police officer who was conducting an unrelated car stop for a traffic violation.
The killer's suppressed aggression towards his father, and amplified emotions by a romantic rejection was discharged through displacement, focusing aggression on a completely uninvolved figure that represented authority.
Maladaptive to Adaptive
Obviously, in the example, the displacement of aggression did little to solve any long term problems. The loathing of his father, the lost lover, still remained, not to mention all the new sorrows arising from this tragedy. The displacement was maladaptive.
Valliant suggests that "the defensive task of displacement, then, is to shift emotional attention from mountains to molehills" (1998, Kindle location: 1,839). Displacement becomes more adaptive when the shift assists in the betterment of our lives. Instead of retaliating against our boss in anger, we push some weights at the gym or play a combat video game.
Displacement separates emotion from its object and then discharges the energy at or through a different avenue. Valliant adds to this definition that "displacement allows the subject's conflict-inducing idea and affect to remain linked but directed toward a less dangerous object" (location 2,448).
Displacement in Nature
Robert Sapolski, a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University, wrote in his detailed book on human behavior, "stress-induced (aka frustration-induced) displacement aggression is ubiquitous in various species. Among baboons, for example, nearly half of aggression is this type—a high-ranking male loses a fight and chases a subadult male, who promptly bites a female, who then lunges at an infant" (2018, location 2190).
Many times it just doesn't make survival sense to act on emotional impulses. However, the energy still exists, arousing the system and we redirect the impulse to a friendlier or socially acceptable target.
The process of displacing aroused attention at a target other than the person or thing responsible for provoking aggression or other energetic reactions exists. We see it.
However, the underlying structure of displacement as a defense mechanism has been challenged. Studies have shown that aggression against different targets than the person or situation that caused the frustration is common, "suggesting that full amount of aggression can be displaced" (1998, Baumeister, Dale, & Sommer, 1093).
Baumeister, et al. believes these findings can be interpreted as mere mood or arousal effect. They don't see it as displacement of anger, redirected at an easier target, just an angry response from someone who is now easily provoked because of their heightened arousal.
Baumeister, et al. explains that "highly aroused subjects will ignore mitigating circumstances when someone provokes them, unlike moderately aroused people who will tone down their aggressive responses when they learn mitigating facts" (p. 1094).
The conflicting theories are:
Contextually, external circumstances do assist with suppressing aggressive responses against those that have power to make our lives miserable or harm us in significant ways. Even when severely depleted, we may still refrain from an aggressive response if we fear retaliation.
Baumeister argues that even if in a depleted state a subject later aggresses against someone else "there is no evidence that such arousal or mood effects serves a defensive function." He continues, "displacement would only qualify as a defense mechanism if the original, unacceptable impulse were prevented from causing damage to self-esteem" (p. 1095).
A Few Final Thoughts on Displacement
Like other defense mechanisms, displacement is just the label slapped on a sequence of behaviors to help us better understand some of the nonsensical things we do. Arguing with your wife because your boss was mean qualifies as a nonsensical behavior, ruining the family's day because of something that happened at the office.
Understanding the process of displacement, whether it is redirected aggression or just a depleted system acting out against an easier target doesn't matter much if it is maladaptive and creates growing resentments and stalls personal growth.
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Baumeister, R., Dale, K., & Sommer, K. (1998). Freudian Defense Mechanisms and Empirical Findings in Modern Social Psychology: Reaction Formation, Projection, Displacement, Undoing, Isolation, Sublimation, and Denial. Journal of Personality, 66(6), 1081-1124.
Di Giuseppe, M., & Perry, J. (2021). The Hierarchy of Defense Mechanisms: Assessing Defensive Functioning With the Defense Mechanisms Rating Scales Q-Sort. Frontiers in Psychology, 12.
Freud, Anna (1992) The Ego and Mechanisms of Defense. Routledge.
Freud, Sigmund (2018) Civilizations and Its Discontents. GENERAL PRESS; 1st edition
Murphy, T. Franklin (2021). Defense Mechanisms. Flourishing Life Society. Published 2-4-2021. Accessed 8-20-2022.
Sapolski, R. (2018). Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. Penguin Books; Illustrated edition.
Trivers, Robert (2011). The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life. Basic Books; 1st edition
Vaillant, G. E. (1998) Adaptations to Life. Harvard University Press; Reprint edition