Displacement (psychology)

Displacement (psychology)

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In Freudian psychology, displacement (German Verschiebung, 'shift' or 'move') is an unconscious
Consciousness is a term that refers to the relationship between the mind and the world with which it interacts. It has been defined as: subjectivity, awareness, the ability to experience or to feel, wakefulness, having a sense of selfhood, and the executive control system of the mind...

 defense mechanism
Defence mechanism
In Freudian psychoanalytic theory, defence mechanisms are unconscious psychological strategies brought into play by various entities to cope with reality and to maintain self-image. Healthy persons normally use different defences throughout life...

 whereby the mind redirects effects from an object felt to be dangerous or unacceptable to an object felt to be safe or acceptable. The term originated with Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud , born Sigismund Schlomo Freud , was an Austrian neurologist who founded the discipline of psychoanalysis...


Displacement operates in the mind unconsciously and involves emotions, ideas, or wishes being transferred from their original object to a more acceptable substitute. It is most often used to allay anxiety; and can to the displacement of aggressive impulses or to the displacement of sexual impulses.


'For Freud, displacement (a primary process) means the transference of physical intensities...along an "associative path," so that strongly cathected ideas have their charge displaced onto other, less strongly cathected ones. This process is active in the formation of hysterical or obsessional symptoms, in the dream work, in the production of jokes, and in the transference
Transference is a phenomenon in psychoanalysis characterized by unconscious redirection of feelings from one person to another. One definition of transference is "the inappropriate repetition in the present of a relationship that was important in a person's childhood." Another definition is "the...


A major 'achievement of the dream-work is displacement....It manifests itself in two ways: in the first, a latent element is replaced not by a component part of itself but by something more remote - that is, by an allusion; and in the second, the psychical accent is shifted from an important element on to another which is unimportant'. Freud considered that 'displacement is the principle means used in the dream-distortion...displacement or shifting of accent - which in conscious thinking we come across only as faulty reasoning or as means for a joke'.

As well as dream-work and jokes, Freud considered that 'it is an inherent characteristic in the psychology of the obsessional neurotic to make the fullest possible use of the mechanism of displacement...especially apt to become displaced on to what is most insignificant and small'.

Subsequently, 'it was above all in the process of refining the analysis of the transference during treatment and its different manifestations — lateral, indirect, and direct transference (Freud, 1915a; Sandór Ferenczi, 1909/1994; Michel Neyraut, 1974) — that the notion of displacement was expanded'.

The psychoanalytic mainstream

Arguably, while generally accepted in the wake of Freud, 'the notion of displacement did not see much further development' in the psychoanalytic mainstream. Otto Fenichel
Otto Fenichel
Otto Fenichel was a psychoanalyst of the so-called "second generation".Otto Fenichel started studying medicine in 1915 in Vienna. Already as a very young man, when still in school, he was attracted by the circle of psychoanalysts around Freud...

 highlighted the displacement of affect
Affect (psychology)
Affect refers to the experience of feeling or emotion. Affect is a key part of the process of an organism's interaction with stimuli. The word also refers sometimes to affect display, which is "a facial, vocal, or gestural behavior that serves as an indicator of affect" .The affective domain...

, pointing out that 'postponement
Postponement of affect
Postponement of affect is a defence mechanism which may be used against a variety of feelings or emotions. Such a 'temporal displacement, resulting simply in a later appearance of the affect reaction and in thus preventing the recognition of the motivating connection, is...most frequently used...

 is but one special case among many types of displacement of affects. Another subtype is displacement in respect to the object. The affect, which was suppressed in relation to one object, bursts forth against another'. More broadly, he considered that 'in part the paths of displacement depend on the nature of the drives that are warded off'.

Eric Berne
Eric Berne
Eric Berne was a Canadian-born psychiatrist best known as the creator of transactional analysis and the author of Games People Play.-Background and education:...

 in his first, psychoanalytic work, maintained that 'some of the most interesting and socially useful displacements of libido
Libido refers to a person's sex drive or desire for sexual activity. The desire for sex is an aspect of a person's sexuality, but varies enormously from one person to another, and it also varies depending on circumstances at a particular time. A person who has extremely frequent or a suddenly...

 occur when both the aim and the object are partial substitutions for the biological aim and object...sublimation (psychology)
Sublimation (psychology)
In psychology, sublimation is a mature type of defence mechanism where socially unacceptable impulses or idealizations are consciously transformed into socially acceptable actions or behaviour, possibly converting the initial impulse in the long term...



In 1957, Jacques Lacan
Jacques Lacan
Jacques Marie Émile Lacan was a French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist who made prominent contributions to psychoanalysis and philosophy, and has been called "the most controversial psycho-analyst since Freud". Giving yearly seminars in Paris from 1953 to 1981, Lacan influenced France's...

 - building on the way in Freud's work, condensation (from German Verdichtung) and displacement are closely linked concepts, and inspired by an article by linguist Roman Jakobson
Roman Jakobson
Roman Osipovich Jakobson was a Russian linguist and literary theorist.As a pioneer of the structural analysis of language, which became the dominant trend of twentieth-century linguistics, Jakobson was among the most influential linguists of the century...

 - argued that the unconscious has the structure of a language, and that condensation and displacement are close equivalents to the poetic functions of metaphor
A metaphor is a literary figure of speech that uses an image, story or tangible thing to represent a less tangible thing or some intangible quality or idea; e.g., "Her eyes were glistening jewels." Metaphor may also be used for any rhetorical figures of speech that achieve their effects via...

 and metonymy
Metonymy is a figure of speech used in rhetoric in which a thing or concept is not called by its own name, but by the name of something intimately associated with that thing or concept...

. As he cautiously put it, 'in the case of Verschiebung, "displacement", the German term is closer to the idea of that veering off of signification that we see in metonymy, and which from its first appearance in Freud is represented as the most appropriate means used by the unconscious to foil censorship'.


Mortido is a term used in Freudian psychoanalysis to refer to 'a form of energy belonging to the death instinct and analogous to libido'. 'The term "mortido", which is nowadays rarely used...designates here the destructive mode of psychic energy'....

 has the same possibilities for varied expression as libido
Libido refers to a person's sex drive or desire for sexual activity. The desire for sex is an aspect of a person's sexuality, but varies enormously from one person to another, and it also varies depending on circumstances at a particular time. A person who has extremely frequent or a suddenly...

. Instead of eliminating an opponent of the same sex, it can attack him without eliminating him, as in business competition, athletic competition, or making sarcastic remarks...or it can eliminate an animal instead of a person, as in hunting'.

In such scapegoating, aggression may be displaced onto people with little or no connection with what is causing anger. Some people punch cushions when they are angry at friends; a college student may snap at his or her roommate when upset about an exam grade.

Displacement can act in a chain-reaction, with people unwittingly becoming both victims and perpetrators of displacement. For example, a man is angry with his boss, but he cannot express this so he hits his wife. The wife hits one of the children, possibly disguising this as punishment (rationalization
Rationalization (psychology)
In psychology and logic, rationalization is an unconscious defense mechanism in which perceived controversial behaviors or feelings are logically justified and explained in a rational or logical manner in order to avoid any true explanation and made consciously tolerable by plausible means...


Ego psychology
Ego psychology
Ego psychology is a school of psychoanalysis rooted in Sigmund Freud's structural id-ego-superego model of the mind.An individual interacts with the external world as well as responds to internal forces. Many psychoanalysts use a theoretical construct called the ego to explain how that is done...

 sought to use displacement in child rearing - thereby 'teaching beginning control through redirection, substitution of goals', as with two-year-old Lawrie resentful at being presented with a baby sister, and offered 'a plastic, inflated dummy called Puncho [to] provide Lawrie with a substitute target for his aggression'.


Later writers have spoken of 'the limitations of the Freudian model of displacement. Freud describes the displacement of sexuality into culture, for example, via sublimation. But displacement also goes the other way...social crisis and conflict are endlessly displaced into sexuality'.

Cultural analogues

  • A John Aubrey
    John Aubrey
    John Aubrey FRS, was an English antiquary, natural philosopher and writer. He is perhaps best known as the author of the collection of short biographical pieces usually referred to as Brief Lives...

     anecdote about Sir Walter Raleigh - 'evidently drawn from the usage of "whipping boys" in the education of princes' - describes how at a dinner table 'Sir Walter...gives his son a damned blow over his face. His son, rude as he was, would not strike his father, but strikes over the face the gentleman that sate next to him and sayd, "Box about: 'twill come to my father anon". 'Tis now a common-used proverb'.

  • The suggestion has been made of the "Freud Wars" that 'the real object of attack - for which Freud is only the stalking horse
    Stalking horse
    A stalking horse is a person who tests a concept with someone or mounts a challenge against them on behalf of an anonymous third party. If the idea proves viable and/or popular, the anonymous figure can then declare their interest and advance the concept with little risk of failure...

     - is the very idea that humans have unconscious motivation'.

  • Confucius
    Confucius , literally "Master Kong", was a Chinese thinker and social philosopher of the Spring and Autumn Period....

     said of his favourite disciple: '"There was Yen Hui; HE loved to learn. He did not transfer his anger; he did not repeat a fault"...i.e. his anger was no tumultuary passion
    Passion (emotion)
    Passion is a term applied to a very strong feeling about a person or thing. Passion is an intense emotion compelling feeling, enthusiasm, or desire for something....

     in the mind, but was excited by some specific cause, to which alone it was directed'.

See also

Further reading

  • Arthur J. Clark, Defense Mechanismss in the Counselling Process (1998) Chap. 3 "Displacement"
  • Mark Krupnick, Displacement: Derrida and After (1983)