“Whenever you are examining someone else, you are bound to learn many interesting things of which you were not previously aware.” ―Lemony Snicket
Do you have a long list of things to do, but even more reasons not to do them?
I do. We all do.
We have lists of must-do today, gotta-do this week, have-to-do this month, and so on. They’re things we know we should do, but instead we check Facebook, read the newspaper, watch T.V., garden, organize the office or garage, or do something else that is completely unrelated to The List that we are wanting to avoid. When humans do this kind of avoidant behavior we call it ‘procrastinating’, but when other species of animals do it, it’s referred to as displacement behavior.
What Is Displacement Behavior?
Rather than try and explain it myself, here are a few definitions of displacement behavior:
In biology and psychology, it’s something that a person or animal does that has no obvious connection with the situation which they are in and that is the result of being confused about what to do.
Displacement behavior usually occurs when an animal is torn between two conflicting drives, such as fear and aggression. Displacement activities often consist of comfort movements, such as grooming, scratching, drinking, or eating.
Displacement Activity defined:
1. (Psychology) behavior that occurs typically when there is a conflict between motives and that has no relevance to either motive, e.g. head scratching
2. (Zoology) zoology the substitution of a pattern of animal behavior that is different from behavior relevant to the situation, e.g. preening at an apparently inappropriate time
Simply put, it’s a normal behavior that’s displayed out of context.
Displacement behavior is usually seen when an animal has a conflict between two drives: the desire to approach an object, while at the same time being fearful of that object. Displacement behaviors are a way of coping with the present environment.
In social situations, scientists also refer to these kinds of behaviors in humans as displacement behaviors. You might recognize these commonly seen behaviors when you’re out at a bar or restaurant where couples are gathered. Men often scratch at, or touch their face. Women will fiddle with their hair, tug at their purse, or tap their shoe. I call it fiddling and flirting! Scientists have even found that these behaviors represent an important strategy for coping with stressful situations, particularly for men.
Mating and Conflict in Many Species
Humans are not the only species who display a variety of displacement behaviors in a myriad of environments to cope with stress and frustration. There are many examples of displacement activities in the animal kingdom. They are known to occur in a wide range of species from dolphins to dogs. Below is a description of the reactions of two herring gulls contending for nesting territories on a sand dune:
If both the birds are standing near the edges of their territories so that in each the urge to drive off the intruder is matched by the urge to retire into the heart of the territory, they may suddenly leave their confrontation for a few moments and pull with their beaks at grass stems.
Tinbergen found that this was really part of the pattern of nest-building; and it appeared that when the drive to defend the nesting territory was frustrated by an opposing drive, part of the pent-up “energy” splashed over, so to speak, in isolated actions which were part of the sequence normally expressing quite a different drive, that of building the nest.
Another interesting point is that some of these activities, especially those which arise in mating encounters, have become transformed into signals which convey the frame of mind of one individual to another of the same species.
Whether or not this adaptation occurs, the essential characteristics of displacement activity are frustration of one basic drive and the inconsequential performance of fragmentary activities normally part of behavior expressing another.
What the scientist is describing are displacement behaviors. These behaviors are allowing the gulls to avoid conflict. They are a form of clear communication within their species, and the behaviors work for the gulls. Our companion animals are doing this all the time with us, and others at home, but we fail to recognize it.
Fidos, Felines, and Feathered Ones
Gulls are not unlike our pets at home. If we look closely enough we will see similar behavior in our animal companions! For example, a dog may have the desire to bark, bite, or walk away from another dog, but instead she scratches herself (when she’s not actually itchy). During conflict, a cat who’s being harassed may be unsure whether to run from her attacker, or stand her ground and fight. So instead of doing either behavior, the threatened cat displays a third, unrelated behavior; grooming. Self grooming is a normal behavior that cats find calming and reassuring. But in this situation, it’s a displacement behavior!
“Some dogs will interrupt play, or other types of interactions with humans or other dogs, to take a quick ‘inventory’ of their own uro-genital body parts. This is a form of displacement behavior that appears most in stressful situations.” – Handelman, Barbara, Canine Behavior
Other common examples of displacement behavior in cats and dogs:
- yawning when not sleepy
- grooming out of context
- using the scratching post after a stressful encounter
- shaking off when not wet
- stretching deeply
- Scent marking with their face
“If an animal (or bird, or fish) is stimulated to express a basic drive but the action is frustrated, the drive may find an outlet by inducing fragments of the pattern of behavior properly belonging to another drive. This is known as displacement activity.” -Thus, Tinbergen
Instead of licking our genitals or racing over to the scratching post, humans find other calming (and much more appropriate) reassuring activities to keep us busy, comfortable, and feeling secure. In fact, I am doing a displacement behavior right now: Instead of facing my Must Do List, I am writing this blog to you.
Displacement behavior is the animal equivalent of nail-biting. It’s a specific behavior that helps to relieve stress, or to deflect conflict, without having to deal with it directly.
How do you know if it’s a displacement behavior?
—> We need to look at the FULL picture.
We need to ask, “What’s happening in the environment at that moment?”
We also need to become aware of the ABCs of Behavior.
What’s In The Name?
The reason these behaviors are called “displacement” behaviors is because they happen out of context. For example, if you and your dog head into the veterinarian’s office and your allergy-free dog begins scratching herself all of a sudden, then paces in circles while in the lobby with you, and then suddenly she “shakes off” (when she is dry), your dog is displaying displacement behaviors. Then this is your dog’s way of calming her nervous system, lowering her stress, and dealing with the environment she feels is threatening.
NOTE: Observing a single action, behavior, or posture is not enough information to accurately interpret an animal’s behavior. A displacement activity might indicate eustress, distress, and/or fear … or not.
Displacement In Action!
The video below shows a number of displacement behaviors in dogs. See how many you recognize. Can you determine what’s causing the dogs to be conflicted/anxious?
The dog wants to do something, but he is suppressing the urge to do it. He displaces the suppressed behavior with something else such as a lick or a yawn. For example, you are getting ready to go out and the dog hopes to go too. He is not sure what will happen next. He wants to jump on you or run out the door, but instead he yawns. The uncertainty of the situation causes conflict for the dog and the displacement behaviors are a manifestation of that conflict. The dog may want to bite a child who takes his bone, but instead he bites furiously at his own foot. – Doggone Safe
Below is a video of an adult cat displaying Displacement Behaviors to reduce the energy and anxiety of a juvenile cat. The Displacement behaviour you will see is grooming, yawning, rolling, and averting gaze.
Cats and dogs aren’t the only companion animals who show displacement behaviors! Rabbits, rats, ferrets, horses, pigs, and parrots do too! Check out the licking, yawning, sniffing, grooming, foot flicking, tail swishing, digging, scratching and more in this video!
Why do we need to be aware of these behaviors?
These behaviors can indicate that the animal is feeling conflicted. Inner conflict that’s not positively addressed can lead to more severe anxiety, fears, and prolonged stress. These can in turn affect an animal’s mental and physical well being, which can lead to medical and behavioral issues. And frankly, if you are living or working with an animal, you should be FLUENT in their language.
What should you do?
If your animal companion is doing any of these behaviors around children, dogs, cats, or other pets in the home (or elsewhere), turn the conflict into fun, or at the very least, help the animal to feel calm, relaxed, and safe. Help them walk away from what’s stressing them, or let them know they are safe by removing the perceived threat. If the situation is getting tense with another animal or child, intervene swiftly but positively. Then offer everyone something positive and productive to focus on. Remember to keep it upbeat and easy! We don’t want to add more stress to the situation.
Note that being “stressed” is not inherently a negative state. Stress, if defined and used correctly in the biological sense, refers to being pushed out of a state physiological homeostasis, either by something negative or positive. Being excited about seeing a rock concert is as stressful as being afraid of going to the dentist. Eustress refers to stress (or arousal, or excitement) that is perceived as positive. Distress refers to stress that is perceived as negative. – Patricia McConnell, PhD, a Zoologist and Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, (CAAB)
Do you notice displacement behaviors in the animals at your work or home? What is the most common one that you see?I would love to hear from you. Please share below!
- Displacement, Avoidance, and Other Stress Signals
- Stress? Fear? Or “Displacement Behavior”?
- CANINE BODY LANGUAGE
- Calming Signals of Dogs
- WHAT IS MY CAT SAYING? Feline Communication
- Parrots and Behaviors