Displacement of aggression refers to a redirection of harm-doing behavior from a primary to a secondary target or victim. An early theory of displacement was proposed by Sigmund Freud in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1950). Freud suggested that persons tend to attack the sources of frustration, but if an individual cannot attack such a source because the target is unavailable or too powerful, a substitute target may become the victim of the pent-up anger. This mechanism explained apparently irrational behavior, such as a person's killing a total stranger for no apparent reason. Frustration causes a buildup of inner tension, which is expended when the individual expresses aggression toward a target. The amount of aggression is postulated to be directly related to the amount of cumulated inner energy. A sudden release of energy through aggressive action is referred to as catharsis.

In Frustration and Aggression (1939), Dollard, Doob, Miller, Mowrer, and Sears converted the literary and meta-phoric language of Freud into the scientifically more acceptable, positivistic language of laboratory-oriented be-havioristic psychologists. According to Dollard and his colleagues, aggressive behavior—like all other kinds of behavior—should be considered subject to the laws of learning. They defined frustration as any stimulus that blocked the goal attainment of an organism striving to attain a goal. Frustration causes a buildup of aggressive drive, which presses for behavioral expression in the form of harm-doing. When a person directs an aggressive response at a frustrating agent and the response is successful in removing the barrier to goal attainment, aggression is rewarded. A rewarded response is more likely to recur the next time the individual faces a similar situation. Thus, while harm-doing behavior reduces aggressive drive and additional immediate aggression, it is rewarding and increases the likelihood of harm-doing when the individual is frustrated again in the future.

Rewarding an individual for inhibiting an aggressive response or punishing harm-doing behavior may teach self-control. As a result of learned inhibition, the aggressive energy generated by frustration either continues to build up or is expressed in indirect ways. While fear of punishment inhibits aggressive behavior, the cumulated internal energy pushes for its expression. These two conflicting forces were conceptualized by Miller (1948) in terms of a model incorporating approach and avoidance forces, but this conflict model has had little subsequent impact on research. Displacement is essentially a principle of substitution of responses or of targets and may be viewed in terms of response or stimulus generalization.

The concept of displacement has been used to explain a wide variety of behaviors; for example, ethnic prejudice and discrimination may be considered a form of displacement. Thus, researchers have tried to show that historically a decline in cotton prices in the southern United States was associated with an increase in lynchings of African Americans. The reasoning is that bad economic results were frustrating to farmers, who took out their anger on Blacks—a type of scapegoating theory. Similarly, wars have been considered to be a result of the cumulated frustrations of many people manifested in an aggression toward a substitute target: the enemy nation. The importance of understanding displacement effects is certainly underlined by the frequent reference of the concept to ethnic, racial, and religious conflicts; child abuse, lynchings, riots, suicides, revolutions, and many other important social behaviors.

The establishment of the frustration-aggression interpretation is undermined by evidence failing to demonstrate catharsis effects (the reduction of subsequent aggression immediately following aggressive behavior). Furthermore, there is no evidence of a buildup of more intense aggressive behavior over a series of frustrating experiences. The fact of displacement-like effects is indisputable, and alternative theories are being developed that rely on concepts drawn from factors related to interpersonal interactions rather than intrapsychic dynamics. Among these alternative explanations are active downward comparisons, self-presentation, negative equity, and guilt by association. Active downward comparison refers to an individual's efforts to lower the performance or identity of another person or group so as to enhance his or her own identity (Wills, 1981). For example, acting to block the opportunities of others (such as providing them with inferior schools) serves to maintain the relative superiority of the discriminating person or group. The desire for positive self-esteem is considered the motivating factor.

Tedeschi and Norman (1985), however, argued that putting others down raises the self up, not so much for internal self-esteem reasons but for the purpose of presenting oneself to others as better or superior in some way. In this formulation, individuals are highly motivated to establish and maintain desirable identities in order to foster positive and rewarding interactions with other people. As a result, an individual is willing to harm someone else if doing so will help promote a positive identity for the individual in the eyes of others. The victims of such harm-doing may have done nothing to provoke or justify the action. For example, a group of teenage boys, each one of them motivated by the desire to impress the other boys with his willingness to use violence, may attack someone at random.

Motivation to restore equity may also produce displacement-like behavior. Members of most groups expect rewards to be fairly distributed. The rule of equity prescribes that each member should receive a share of the rewards proportional to his or her contribution to the group's success in attaining the rewards. It is assumed that people are motivated to maintain justice and that, when an injustice occurs, something should be done to restore justice. When rewards are unfairly distributed in a group, disadvantaged members may be motivated to restore equity. If for some reason no action can be taken against the source of the inequity, other means of restoring equity may be undertaken. For example, if a boss distributes Christmas bonuses to his or her workers, and a few of the workers believe they received unfairly low bonuses, they should be motivated to restore equity. They cannot punish the boss for fear of losing their jobs, but they might take out their anger by harming (probably in some nonviolent way) the relatively advantaged workers. Such action restores equity in the sense that the advantaged workers are made to suffer, detracting from the monetary gain and thus making outcomes more fair.

Anthropologists and historians have noted that retaliation is often visited upon coconspirators, blood relatives, or friends of instigators, rather than directly against the instigator. Victims sometimes hold all members of an out-group equally responsible for harm done to them and may retaliate against one of the weaker members of the out-group. Thus, retaliation may be directed against any member of a rival gang, or in blood feuds, against any member of the target family. Hate groups may randomly target any member of the hated group. The representative target chosen from the category of believed enemies may be completely innocent and unaware of any harm done to the aggressor. The attack represents a displacementlike effect, since revenge is not taken against a frustrating agent but against an innocent third party—although such an attack may serve to punish the frustrating agent by harming a loved one, or it may be motivated to deter future harm-doing by that agent.


Dollard, J., Doob, N., Miller, N. E., Mowrer, O. H., & Sears, R. R. (1939). Frustration and aggression. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Freud, S. (1950). Beyond the pleasure principle (J. Strachey, Trans.). New York: Liveright.

Miller, N. E. (1948). Theory and experiment relating psychoanalytic displacement to stimulus-response generalization. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 43, 155-178.

Tedeschi, J. T., & Norman, N. (1985). Social mechanisms of displaced aggression. In E. J. Lawler (Ed.), Advances in group processes: Theory and research (Vol. 2, pp. 29-56). Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.

Wills, T. A. (1981). Downward comparison principles in social psychology. Psychological Bulletin, 90, 245-271.

James T. Tedeschi

University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

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