Displacement (psychology)

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


The concept of displacement originated with Sigmund Freud.[2] Initially he saw it 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 the 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).

Phobia displacement or repression: Humans were able to express specific unconscious needs through phobias. These needs that were suppressed deep within themselves created anxiety and tension. The stress, fear, and anxiety that characterize a phobic disorder were the discharge.[citation needed]

Reaction Formation: Cognizant practices are embraced to overcompensate for the nervousness an individual feels in regards to their socially inadmissible oblivious considerations or feelings. Typically, a response arrangement is set apart by misrepresented conduct, like garishness and urgency. An illustration of reaction formation incorporates the loyal little girl who adores her mom is responding to her Oedipus scorn of her mom. [10]

The psychoanalytic mainstream[edit]

Among Freud's mainstream followers, Otto Fenichel highlighted the displacement of affect, either through postponement or by redirection, or both.[11] More broadly, he considered that "in part the paths of displacement depend on the nature of the drives that are warded off".[12]

Freud's daughter, Anna Freud, also played an important role in the upbringing of these defense mechanisms by the twentieth century. She introduced and analyzed ten of her own defense mechanisms and her work has been used and increased through the years by newer psychoanalysts.[13]

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".[14]


In 1957, psychoanalyst 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,[15] and condensation to that of metaphor.

As Lacan 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".[16]


Within the Freudian psychoanalytic framework, the aggressive drives may be displaced in a similar manner to the libidinal drives. Business or athletic competition, or hunting, for instance, may offer opportunities for the expression of displaced aggression.[17] In such scapegoating behavior, aggression may be displaced onto items or people with little to no connection to the cause of the aggressors frustration.

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.[18] With a purpose to apprehend how the ego uses defense mechanisms, it is important to apprehend the defense mechanisms themselves and the way they function. A few defense mechanisms are visible as protecting us from the internal impulses (e.g., repression); other defense mechanism guard us from external threats (e.g., denial). [19]

Transferential displacement[edit]

The displacement of feelings and attitudes from past significant others onto the present-day ones constitutes a central aspect of the transference, particularly in the case of the neurotic.[20]

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.[21]

As of now encoded in subcortical neural pathways, material from our oblivious brain is pushed into our cognizant psyche as we attempt to manage mental wonders – typically agonizing – that we are encountering. With the "help" of mind movement, we unknowingly re-surface and re-order struggle ridden encounters as though the past were the present and one setting were another. We move contemplations, sentiments, and perspectives, particularly about individuals who take after others. We allocate them jobs once played by others. We take on old jobs ourselves. All unwittingly. [22]


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.[23]

Freud's hypothesis is acceptable at clarifying however not at anticipating conduct. Therefore, Freud's hypothesis is unfalsifiable - it cannot be demonstrated valid or invalidated. Freud may likewise have shown research predisposition in his understandings - he may just focused on data which upheld his hypotheses, and overlooked data and different clarifications that didn't fit them.[24]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Berne, Eric (1976), A Layman's Guide to Psychiatry and Psychoanalysis, 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. ^ McLeod, Saul. "10 Defense Mechanisms: What Are They and How They Help Us Cope". Simply Psychology.
  11. ^ Fenichel, Otto (1946), The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis, London, p. 163{{citation}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  12. ^ Fenichel 1946, p. 199
  13. ^ Bailey, Ryan; Pico, Jose (2021), "Defense Mechanisms", StatPearls, Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing, PMID 32644532, retrieved 2021-06-25
  14. ^ Berne 1976, p. 78
  15. ^ Macey, David (1994). "Introduction". In Lacan, Jacques (ed.). The Four Funadamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis. p. xxviii.
  16. ^ Lacan, Jacques (1997), Ecrits: A Selection, London, p. 160{{citation}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  17. ^ Berne 1976, p. 80
  18. ^ Selma H. Fraiberg, The Magic Years (New York 1987) p. 151-3
  19. ^ "5.2: Anna Freud and Ego Psychology". Social Sci LibreTexts. 2019-02-18. Retrieved 2021-06-02.
  20. ^ P. Schwmeister, Less Legible Meaning (1999) p. 88
  21. ^ P. Casement, Further Learning from the Patient (1990) p. 151
  22. ^ "Double-Edged Swords: Understanding Transference and Countertransference in Non-analytic Therapy by Judith A. Schaeffer, Ph.D." www.continuingedcourses.net. Retrieved 2021-06-25.
  23. ^ Jonathan Dollimore, Sexual Dissidence (1991) p. 184
  24. ^ "Sigmund Freud's Theories". www.simplypsychology.org. Retrieved 2021-07-09.

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]