Displacement (psychology)

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In psychology, displacement (German: Verschiebung, "shift, move") is an unconscious defence mechanism whereby the mind substitutes either a new aim or a new object for goals felt in their original form to be dangerous or unacceptable.[1]

A term originating with Sigmund Freud,[2] displacement operates in the mind unconsciously, its transference of emotions, ideas, or wishes being most often used to allay anxiety in the face of aggressive or sexual impulses.


Freud initially saw displacement as a means of dream-distortion, involving a shift of emphasis from important to unimportant elements,[3] or the replacement of something by a mere illusion.[4] Freud called this “displacement of accent.”

Displacement of object: Feelings that are connected with one person are displaced onto another person. A man who has had a bad day at the office, comes home and yells at his wife and children, is displacing his anger from workplace onto his family. Freud[5] thought that when children have animal phobias, they may be displacing fears of their parents onto an animal.

Displacement of attribution: A characteristic that one perceives in oneself but seems unacceptable is instead attributed to another person. This is essentially the mechanism of psychological projection; an aspect of the self is projected (displaced) onto someone else. Freud[6] wrote that people commonly displace their own desires onto God’s will.

Bodily displacements: A genital sensation may be experienced in the mouth (displacement upward) or an oral sensation may be experienced in the genitals (displacement downward). Novelist John Cleland in ‘’Fanny Hill’’[7] referred to the vagina as “the nethermouth.” Sexual attraction toward a human body can be displaced in sexual fetishism, sometimes onto a particular body part like the foot or at other times onto an inanimate fetish object.

Freud also saw displacement as occurring in jokes,[8] as well as in neuroses – the obsessional neurotic being especially prone to the technique of displacement onto the minute.[9] When two or more displacements occurs towards the same idea, the phenomenon is called condensation (from the German Verdichtung).

The psychoanalytic mainstream[edit]

Among Freud's mainstream followers, Otto Fenichel highlighted the displacement of affect, either through postponement or by redirection, or both.[10] More broadly, he considered that "in part the paths of displacement depend on the nature of the drives that are warded off".[11]

Eric Berne in his first, psychoanalytic work, maintained that "some of the most interesting and socially useful displacements of libido occur when both the aim and the object are partial substitutions for the biological aim and object...sublimation".[12]


In 1957, Jacques Lacan, inspired by an article by linguist Roman Jakobson on metaphor and metonymy, argued that the unconscious has the structure of a language, linking displacement to the poetic function of metonymy,[13] and condensation to that of metaphor.

As he himself 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".[14]


The aggressive drive – known as mortido – may be displaced quite as much as the libidinal - the sex drive. Business or athletic competition, or hunting, for instance, offer plentiful opportunities for the expression of displaced mortido.[15]

In such scapegoating behavior, aggression may be displaced onto people with little or no connection with what is causing anger or frustration. 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 also act in what looks like 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 properly, so he hits his wife. The wife, in turn, hits one of the children, possibly disguising this as a "punishment." (rationalization)

Ego psychology sought to use displacement in child rearing, a dummy being used as a displaced target for toddler sibling rivalry.[16]

Transferential displacement[edit]

The displacement of feelings and attitudes from past significant others onto the present-day analyst constitutes a central aspect of the transference, particularly in the case of the neurotic.[17]

A subsidiary form of displacement within the transference occurs when the patient disguises transference references by applying them to an apparent third party or to themself.[18]


Later writers have objected that whereas Freud only described the displacement of sex into culture, for example, the converse – social conflict being displaced into sexuality – is also true.[19]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Eric Berne, A Layman's Guide to Psychiatry and Psychoanalysis (1976) p. 399
  2. ^ Salman Akhtar, Comprehensive Dictionary of Psychoanalysis (2009) p. 82
  3. ^ Sigmund Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (PFL 2) p. 49–50
  4. ^ Sigmund Freud, Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (PFL 1) p. 208
  5. ^ Freud, S. (1913). Totem and taboo: Some points of agreement between the mental lives of savages and neurotics. Complete Works, 13: 1–162, London: Hogarth.
  6. ^ Freud, S. (1927). The future of an illusion. Complete Works, 21: 1–56. London: Hogarth.
  7. ^ Cleland, J. Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure. Critical ed. by Peter Sabor, Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1985.
  8. ^ New Introductory Lectures p. 49
  9. ^ Sigmund Freud Case Studies II (PFL 9) p. 120-1
  10. ^ Otto Fenichel, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis (London 1946) p. 163
  11. ^ Fenichel, p. 199
  12. ^ Berne, A Layman's Guide p. 78
  13. ^ David Macey, Introduction, Jacques Lacan, The Four Funadamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis (1994) p. xxviii
  14. ^ Jacques Lacan, Ecrits: A Selection (London 1997) p. 160
  15. ^ Berne, p. 80
  16. ^ Selma H. Fraiberg, The Magic Years (New York 1987) p. 151-3
  17. ^ P. Schwmeister, Less Legible Meaning (1999) p. 88
  18. ^ P. Casement, Further Learning from the Patient (1990) p. 151
  19. ^ Jonathan Dollimore, Sexual Dissidence <1991) p. 184

Further reading[edit]

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

External links[edit]