Doin’ The Displacement

AUG, 2015

“Whenever you are examining someone else, you are bound to learn many interesting things of which you were not previously aware.” ―Lemony Snicket

behavior

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.

To-Dos-List
I wish my To Do list looked like this.

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. 

Body-Language--Men-Flirting-8
Male displacement behavior when flirting

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!

displacement behavior cats
Grooming can be 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
scratching post cats displacement behavior
Have you seen your cat suddenly run over to use his scratching post? What happened right before he did that?

“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


parrot behavior
Beak wiping and scratching are common parrot displacement behaviors you will see when they are feeling conflicted.

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 behavior which helps to relieve stress or deflect trouble, without dealing with it directly.
Scratching can often be a dispacement behavior during training sessions and when other dogs or kids are getting too rowdy.

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.

ABCs of behavior_dog behavior_cat behavior_ antecedent_consequence
The ABCs of Behavior began with people, but are now used for pets!

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)

funny-awkward-cats-
Putting this random image in here is another form of displacement behavior for me; I would rather laugh at this kind of silliness instead of proof reading this blog post.

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!


Recommended Reading

That Guilty Look

 “Calvin : There’s no problem so awful, that you can’t add some guilt to it and make it even worse.” 
― Bill Watterson, The Complete Calvin and Hobbes

guilty dog_dog shaming

 

Common Myth: When our pup puts on that doleful, guilty look, they must be guilty of something, right? He/she clearly feels bad for doing something wrong.

TRUTH: Your dog knows you are angry or upset and is using that particular body posture in their attempt of using dog language to get you to calm down and avoid any punishment from you.

 

The Science-Based Truth Behind That Guilty Expression:

Nearly 75 percent of dog guardians believe that their dogs experience guilt. Just watch Denver Dog, as he is presumed to feel very guilty in this video. It’s a natural tendency for us to interpret animal behavior in our human terms, but when we anthropomorphize (compare animal behavior to human behavior) we can overlook what is really happening.  Guilt is a human emotion.  Humans often project this guilt onto their animal companions.

Dog guardians observe particular behaviors: “avoiding eye contact, lying down and rolling to the side or onto the back, dropping the tail, wagging low and quickly, holding one’s ears down or head down, moving away from the owner, raising a paw and licking” – and owners believe these behaviors correspond with a dog’s feeling of guilty.  However, these are normal and very common dog behaviors that dogs display with each other, depending on the circumstances. These displays are called “appeasement behaviors” – behavior that inhibits or neutralizes aggression in a behavioral partner.

 

When a dog owner reprimands their dog, especially with loud, deep tones, the dog will attempt to calm the aggressive behavior of the owner (note: aggressive does not necessarily mean violent) with appeasement gestures: lowered head, ears, tail and body and squinty eyes. To the owner, this looks “guilty.”

In reality, the dog is only reacting to the behavior of the owner in the present moment and not associating the owner’s behavior with the actions of the dog that occurred hours before. The owner, however, is gratified by the dog’s appeasement gestures, taking it as evidence that the dog has learned he’s “bad.” ~ 4Paws University

 

dog guilt _dog shaming _Guilty dog
Denver the dog is displaying appeasement behaviors to his human. This does not equate to proof that Denver feels “guilty”.

“In wolves, guilt-related behaviors are believed to reinforce social bonds, as in primates, by reducing conflict and eliciting tolerance from other members of the social group. The same could be true of dogs, though their social groups would primarily include humans. Submission serves to keep a social group together, to foster group cohesion.”

 

The “guilty look” — head cowered, ears back, eyes droopy — is a reaction to the minor (or major) tantrum you are now having over the damage fido did hours earlier. They are not making the connection that you must be upset because of that poop they dropped on the rug, or the shoe they chewed that you left out. They only know you are upset about something, so they are doing what dogs do best to appease each other through nonthreatening body language.

The dog’s guilty look is a response to the owner’s behavior, and not necessarily indicative of any appreciation of its own misdeeds.

A study discovered that the “guilty” look people claim to see in their companion animal is directly related to whether or not the person expected to see the look, regardless of whether or not the dog had actually done something to be “guilty” about.  When a dog looks guilty it is because they are reacting to a change in our body language that tells them something is wrong.   This leads to a dog’s body language that appears worried or nervous to us.  In reality the dog has learned to exhibit these behaviors in order to appease humans who display angry or upset body language.  Details of the research studies are here and here.

Unless your dog has been going to canine church behind your back, and has been taught to feel guilty for moral or religious reasons, it’s safe to assume that they are not actually feeling guilty; they are using their canine senses and behavior to carefully appease your anger.

paw print

 You can learn more about this subject from dog behaviorists, and read their take on it here and here.

Learn more common myths and truths about dog behavior in Decoding Your Dog, a new book from the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. Drs. Debra Horwitz and John Ciribassi.

Myths About Dog Behavior
Myths About Dog Behavior

 Sources:

Scientific American

Discovery