mise à jour du
28 octobre 2006
British J of Psychology
An interpretation of the "displacement phenomenon"
Dalbir Bindra
McGill University, Montreal, Canada


Animals that are prevented from continuing some activity (e.g., attacking, copulating) tend to engage either in the same sort of activity toward another object or in a completely different activity (e.g., grooming, preening). A popular interpretation of this phenomenon among psychologists and ecologists is in terms of a displacement mechanism through which it is assumed the energy of one reaction system is drained off into another, following Freud's early formulation. Bindra, rejecting this line of explanation as vague and ad hoc, offers an alternative explanation in terms of the operation of three factors:
1. An obstructing event brings about an increased level of excitation in the animal.
2. This heightening of excitation alters the relative probabilities of occurrence of the various activities that exist in the animal's repertoire, the condition of heightened excitement favoring those activities which were initially acquired or recently practiced at such a high arousal-level and those activities that have, in general, been practiced frequently.
3. Any activity in the animal's repertoire can occur only within a certain range of variation of the sensory cues with which that activity is associated. In support of his thesis, Bindra offers the observation that many so-called displacement activities, thumb-sucking in children, grazing in sheep, and preening in birds, have high habit strength.
He suggests that the man who is provoked by his boss but does not act aggressively in the office would be less likely to act aggressively with his wife or children (rather than more aggressively, as the displacement mechanism theory would have it). Since he proposes that the behavior following obstruction would be determined by the sensory cues currently active in the animal or human, not by any residual 'energy' made superfluous by the obstruction, he predicts that the man provoked by his boss at the office would react aggressively toward his wife only if that is one of the activities for which she is a cue. If she is a cue, rather, for relaxing, he may instead 'cry on her shoulder'. Bindra's thesis has the virtue that it suggests easily achievable lines of experimental work.

The observations that animals obstructed in the execution of a particular ongoing or customary activity (e.g. attacking, copulating tend either to direct the same activity toward another object or to engage in a completely different activity (e.g. doodling, grooming, preening) have traditionally been described as 'displacement phenomena'. Both psychologists and ethologiste currently interpret these phenomena in terms of some kind of displacement phenomenon, which is assumed to displace the 'energy' or 'drive' from one reaction system to another. This type of interpretation is vague and ad hoc, and at best provides only a redundant description of the observed phenomena. The alternative interpretation proposed here looks upon the problem of the occurrence of the so-called displacement activities as a special case of the general question of the factors determining the occurrence of any activity that. exists in an animal's repertoire. In particular, it is suggested that all instances of displacement phenomena can be adequately accounted for in terms of the operation of three factors: (a) an increase in the level of arousal of the animal brought about by the obstructing event, (b) the relative habit strengths of the various activities in the repertoire of the animal, and (c) the nature of the sensory cues provided by the altered stimulus situation. This formulation incorporates the important ethological and psychological findings, and provides an interpretation of displacement phenomena which is not ad hoc and which suggests new lines of experimental work.
I. The phenomenon and its current interpretation
When an animal is prevented from engaging in a particular activity, either by an environmental obstacle or by interference from some other ('conflicting') responses, that activity may be said to be obstructed. Such obstruction ('frustration') of an on-going, customary, or in some sense 'expected' activity affects the course of the animal's subsequent behaviour. A sequence of events of this kind, response A-obstruction-response B, has been widely described as displacenuni phenomnan, and the subsequent activity (response B) is labelled displacernent activity.
Generally speaking, the term 'displacement.' is used to describe two different types of consequences of the obstruction of an activity (or 'drive'). The first type includes cases in which, when an opportunity arises, the animal engages in the same general class of activity as the one that was obstructed, but the activity is directed towards a different object. Thus, a man who, after some provocation, is prevented from hitting his boss because of some interfering 'respect re8pouses', later, may (at least according to folklore) act aggressively toward his wife or children. Secondly, the term 'displacement', is employed to describe phenomena in which, following the obstruction, the animal shows some other, 'irrelevant', but fairly specific, activity. Thus, a child prevented from eating candy may start to suck his thumb, or a sheep prevented from escaping a noxious stimulation may begin to graze. In cases of this type, the animal does not engage in the activity that was originally obstructed, but in some completely different activity. Ethologists (e.g. Lorenz, 1935, 1941; Tinbergen, 1951, 1952) employ the term 'displacement' in this sense when, for example, they state that, if conflicting responses obstruct fighting in a skylark, or copulation in a duck, the animal begins to preen or peck intermittently. The various behavioural phenomena described by such labels as 'substitution', 'sublimation', and 'displaced aggression' are all special cases of the two types of consequence of obstruction described above.
The currently popular interpretation of these phenomena, in both psychological and sthological writings, is in terms of a displacement mechanism (Freud. 1913). Thus, it is thought that, when an animal is prevented from engaging in an activity (or 'expressing a drive'), the particular response tendency or its accompanying 'energy' remains active until it can be dissipated either by 'displacing' it on to an irrelevant object or into an irrelevant activity. As Tinbergen has put it 'Our hypothesis therefore is that the displacement activities are outlets through which the thwarted drives can express themselves in motion' (1952, p. 12). Such a notion of a displacement mechanism is quite inadequate to explain displacement phenomena. It is vague and ad hoc. When an animal is prevented from engaging in an activity for which it is ready, it obviously must show some activityif it is still alive. Only two possibilities exist. Either its new activity will resemble, to a lesser or greater extent, the prevented activity, or the new activity will be completely different. In neither case is anything gained by stating, post hoc, that it represents a 'displacement' of the original response tendency, energy, or drive. Invoking this hypothetical mechanism so arbitrarily provides only redundant descriptions and is unproductive of experimental analysis. In order to formulate a meaningful and experimentally fruitful hypothesis, the exact empirical variables that control the occurrence of displacement activities must be stated explicitly. (Actually, to describe the phenomena under discussion as displacement phenomena in to beg the question; however, in order to avoid coining a new term, I shall continue employing the term 'displacement phenomena' osa descriptive label, without accepting the 'displacement mechanism' as an adequate explanation.)
A number of writers have already confronted the difficult task of specifying the empirical variables that determine the occurrence of displacement activities. For example, Tinbergen (1952) has discussed the roles of factors such as initial posture and external stimulation, and Andrew (l9SGa, b) of stimuli originating from the body surface. Miller (1948) has experimentally analysed some of the factors operating in 'displaced aggression'. In the following pages an attempt is made to incorporate, the findings of ethological and psychological workers into a. general framework which would present an advance over the displacement notion. The proposed framework appears to have two advantages. First, it suggests new lines of experimental work, Secondly, it in not ad hoc; rather, it is a special application of the same general bssic concepts as are employed in accounting for other types of behaviour.
II. An alternative interpretation
The general point of view adopted here is the one I have more fully developed elsewhere (Bindra, 1959). Basically, it assumes that the problem of the analysis of any particular type of behaviour can be reduced to two (empirical) questions. First, how did the particular activity develop in the organism's repertoire? Secondly, what factors determine that this activity, rather than any other activity of which the organism is capable, will occur at a given time and place, and the details (e.g. latency. duration, errors) of the way u which the activity occurs? In the present analysis of displacement activity, the first, question can he ignored; we can assume that the activities usually described as displacement activities (preening in birds, grazing in sheep, grooming in chimpanzees. thumbsucking in the human infant, and so on) have already developed in the organism's repertoire. (The exact roles of innate and experiential facti*s in the development of these activities still remain to be determined: see Bindra, 1959, chapters 3 and 4.) Thus, the question under discussion is one of the factors that determine whether or to what extent r will any given activity occur at a particular time and place. To general. as I have arcuied in the reference cited, four main sets of factors completely determine the occurence of any activity: habit strength of the activity, senenry cues provided by the stimulus situation, level of arousal of the organism, and state of blood chemistry of the organism. In this discussion an attempt is made to account for the occurrence of the So-called displacement activities in terms of the operation of the first three of these factors. The discussion involves a number of general propositions and a consideration of their application displacement phenomena.
(1) The level of arousal of an organism is raised whenever it is exposed to an environemental change or novel sensory stimulation. (The term 'level of arousal'is employed here to denote roughly the degree to which an organism is excited rather than calm. The low extreme end of this dimension is represented by the state of deep sleep or general anaesthesia, the high extreme end by the state of panic or epileptic seizure. The commonly employed indices of arousal include such measures of physiological function as electrical resistance of skin, muscle action potentials, and the pattern of firing of nerve cells within the brain. For a fuller discussion of this concept, see Puffy (1951. 1957), Liodsley (1951). ,Srhloeherg (1954.1957 Hebb (1955), Malmo (1957) and Biodra (1959).) The extent to which arousal level is raised depends upon the exact nature of lie stimulus change: for example, noxious stimulation (such as electric chock or its threat) and socially insulting events tend, in general, to raise arousal level more than does lie presentation of lights, noises and simple tasks. Now, the starting-point in the description of the typical displacement phenomenon is some type of obstruction that is described as frustrating, conflict-provoking, anxiety-producing, stressful, or a situation of great "tension" (Tinbergen, 1952). Whatever the exact nature of these situations, they all involve,a change in sensory stimulation of the type that substantially raises the level pf arousal ('excess of drive'-Tinbergen), though the degree of increase in arousal varies from situation to situation and individual to individual. Thus, the so-called displacement activities typically occur when the animal is in a state of heightened arousal. The heightened arousal level typically lasts for some time after the cessation of the event (i.e. change in sensory stimulation) that initially produced it. According to the present view. it is the continued presence of the heightened arousal level that is partly responsible for what the animal does subsequently. To the present context, this means that the partioular (displacement) activities that occur in a given situation depend upon the degree and duration of the heightened arousal level.
(2) A shift in the level of arousal of an animal alters the relative probabilities of occurrence of the various activities that exist in its repertoire. At very high (and very low) levels of arousal there is an increase in the relative probabilities of occurrence of two types of activities: (a) activities that were initially acquired or recently practiced at a high arousal level, and (b) activities that have a high habit strength, that is, those that have been frequently practised. It is the high habit-strength activities that are particularly relevant here. According to the present view, the activities that are usually referred to as displacement activities are those that are highly prepotent in the repertoire of organisms. As Tinbergen has stated, an animal is apt to use as outlets those patterns which for some reason offer least resistance (1962, p. 1). An enumeration of the various displacement activities indicates that they are typically high habit-strength activities. For example, thumb-suking in children, grazing in sheep, preening in birds are activities that are likely to be over-practised in the repertoire of the members of the particular species.
The above proposition states that activities not prepotent in the repertoire of an animal are not likely to occur when it is frustrated, made anxious, put in a conflict situation, or aroused in any other way. Thus, a man in whom aggressive acts are not prepotent is less likely to act aggressively in any situation than one in whom aggressive acts have reached a high level of habit strength. This statement implies that the man who, on being reprimanded and, thus, provoked by his boss, does not act aggressively in the office situation is not likely to art aggressively even when he sees his wife or children. But the man who does act aggressively in the office situation is also likely to act aggressively in the home situation, provided his arousal level remains high. These predictions are directly opposed to those that might be made on the basis of the traditional interpretation in terms of a displacement mechanism. That would predict that an individual who is provoked but does not act aggressively ('suppresses his anger') in the office situation is more likely to act aggressively ('let go') in the absence of his boss. These opposing predictions are subject to an empirical test. In this connexion it is interesting to note that, in Miller's (1948) experiment, rats acted aggressively toward a doll after they had obtained considerable practice in attacking each other in the experimental situation. The present interpretation would predict that aggression toward the doll would occur only in the case of those rats in whom aggressive acts had acquired a certain (undertermined) degree of prepotence. Similarly, according to our formulation, birds that normally preen more than others will also be more likely to show preening when they are aroused than birds in whom preening has not reached the same level of habit strength. These predictions can be tested experimentally. The present suggestion of interaction between the factors of habit strength and arousal makes it unnecessary to postulate different (undetermined) 'thresholds' (Tinbergen, 1962) for the occurrence of various (displacement) activities existing in the animal's repertoire.
(3) Any activity in the repertoire of animals can occur only within a certain range of variation of the sensory ones with which that activity is associated; when such sensory cues are altered beyond a certain degree that activity cannot occur at all. It is well known that if the situation in which an animal normally eats or copulates is altered beyond a certain degree, the animal will cease, at least for some time, to engage in the customary activity; similarly, an animal which acts aggressively toward a weaker animal may act submissively toward a dominant one. In the present context, this proposition means that, when an animal has been aroused in some way, its subsequent behaviour will depend upon the nature of the sensory cues generated by the situation in which it finds itself. If, for example, after some frustration, a rat is placed in the situation in which it normally copulates, then the rat is likely to copulate; if it is placed in an 'attack situation', it will tend to show aggressive behaviour; and if it is placed in an 'eating situation', it will probably eat. In short, the sensory ones associated with a particular activity will evoke that activity, except in so far as the customary activity may be affected by the raised level of arousal. Thus according to the present view, the behaviour following any obstruction is determined by the sensory cues currently active in the animal, and not by any residual 'energy' made superfluous by the obstruction. Th influence of initial posture and environmental stimuli discussed by Tinbergen (1952) is considered here as a special case of the control on behaviour exerted by the current (proprioceptive and exteroceptive) sensory cues. Where.. only some of the relevant sensory cues are present, an activity may occur only incompletely: thus, while normally a bird may peck and pick up food, if no food is in sight it may peck and pick up nothing or may interrupt a peck in progress.
The above proposition implies that activities associated with more frequently occurring sensory cues will be more likely to occur following obstruction than activities associated with less frequently occurring cues. Whereas most activities of animals are dependent upon appropriate environmental cues, there are some that seem to be connected primarily to cues arising from the animal's own body (Andrew, l96h). Activities of this latter type include grooming in rats, preening in birds, thumh.siicking in infants, and tics and stereotyped postural movements in most animals. If the present proposition is accepted as true, it is not surprising to note that it is activities of this type that are most frequently described as displacement activities. The proposition also suggests a way to account for the observation that, for example, a man provoked by lus boss may not attack his boss but may, a minute later, bang his own desk or reprimand his own secretary. In such a case it is likely (and this can be determined independently of any particular incident) that the boss-in-his-office situation does not provide for this man the cues for aggressive acts, but his own secretary and desk do. Similarly, according to the present view, on reaching home the man will act aggressively toward his wife only if that is one of the activities for which the wife is a cue; if his wife is a cue for relaxing, he may 'cry on her shoulder' (and this probably happens more frequently than the current folklore leads one to suspect).
III. Conclusion
The interpretation of displacement phenomena proposed here looks upon all such phenomena as resulting from the operation of three general sets of variables: level of arousal, habit strength and sensory cues. This formulation is not considered as, in some sense, a final explanation of displacement phenomena. Rather, it is offered as a line of speculation that points to the type of research that is likely to lead to an adequate explanation. This approach is an advance over the traditional interpretation in two ways. First, it is not ad hoc; rather it is a special application of the same. basic concepts that are generally employed in accounting for all types of behaviour. Secondly, it appears to be more fruitful in suggesting new lines of experimental work; in particular, the exact effects of the three sets of variables on the occurrence of various types of (displacement) activities emerge as important experimental problems.

Tous les travaux de B. Deputte

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