Displacement: A Defense Mechanism

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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. Displacement is a defensive mechanism that discharges unacceptable impulsive energy at easier targets.

​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).

​Maturity Level of Displacement​ Defense

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). In psychology, we consider displacement as a better response to discomforting emotional pushes than mechanisms listed as immature. However, we can develop better protective responses with maturity.

​Discharge of Negative 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. We often associate displacement 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, 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. A strict disciplinarian father who served as a police officer in a neighboring city raised this kid. 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 discharged suppressed aggression towards his father, and amplified emotions by a romantic rejection through displacement, focusing his aggression on a completely uninvolved figure that represented authority.

​Is Displacement of Negative Energy Maladaptive or 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.

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).

Discharging Negative Energy in Nature

Robert Sapolski, a professor of biology and neurology, wrote, “stress-induced (aka frustration-induced) displacement aggression is ubiquitous in various species. For instance, 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. 

Opposing Arguments Against Displacement as a Defense Mechanism

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, Many psychologists and researchers challenge the theory that the underlying structure of displacement is a defense mechanism. These studies show 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. believe these findings can be interpreted as mere mood or arousal effect. markedly, Baumiester doesn’t see displacement of anger, redirected at an easier target, just an angry response from someone who is easily provoked because of 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:

  • the aggression performs a diffusing of impulsive energy by finding an easier target
  • We more easily act on impulsive energy when in a heightened state of heightened arousal

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 a label we slap 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. Consequently. ruining our family’s day because of something that happened at the office. We discharge the unacceptable impulsive energy from the office at the easier targets within the walls of our own home.

If we can recognize when we use displacement, discharging unacceptable energy at easier targets., then we can redirect our aggression instead of acting out against an easier targets. Our changes may limit maladaptive interactions that create growing resentments and stall 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. Psychology Fanatic. 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.

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