Displaced Aggression Definition
Direct aggression follows the tit-for-tat rule that governs most social interaction: A provocation or frustration elicits verbally or physically aggressive behavior that is directed toward the source of that provocation or frustration, typically matching or slightly exceeding its intensity. In displaced aggression, an aggressive behavior is directed at a person or other target (e.g., a pet) that is not the source of the aggression-arousing provocation or frustration. Displaced aggression occurs when it is impossible or unwise to respond aggressively toward the source of the provocation or frustration.
Displaced Aggression History and Modern Usage
Sigmund Freud discussed displaced aggression. For example, if a man receives strong criticism from his boss, it would be unwise to retaliate by verbally or physically assaulting him. Instead, at a later time, he might insult his own wife or kick his dog. Each of these behaviors can be viewed as a displacement of the aggressive behavior that the man would have preferred to direct at the original source of the provocation—his boss.
In direct aggression, little time usually elapses between the provocation and the aggressive response to it. But in displaced aggression, the time between the provocation and the aggressive response can range from minutes to hours or days. After a provocation or frustration, physiological measures (e.g., heart rate) typically show increased arousal. This increase ordinarily lasts about 5 or 10 minutes but can persist for about 20 minutes. It may or may not contribute to displaced aggression. Rumination (persistent thought) about the provoking event, however, allows displaced aggression to occur long after the physiological arousal has subsided.
Triggered Displaced Aggression
Probably more common than displaced aggression is triggered displaced aggression. Instead of being totally innocent, the target of triggered displaced aggression provides a minor irritation that is seen by the aggressor as justifying his or her displaced aggression. As in displaced aggression, the magnitude of the aggressive act clearly violates the tit-for-tat matching rule.
The Relation between Triggered Displaced Aggression and Excitation Transfer
Although the concept excitation transfer seems similar to triggered displaced aggression, they differ. In excitation transfer, arousal from another source (e.g., loud noise, exercise, or sexual stimulation) combines with the arousal from a provocation or frustration and produces a stronger retaliation than would have been the case without that other source of arousal. Thus, the increased arousal might be viewed as similar to a trigger. For excitation transfer to occur, however, the other source of arousal must have happened within about 5 minutes of the provocation. Moreover, one must be unaware that the other arousal still persists.
If aware, it will instead be properly attributed to its source (e.g., the exercise) and thus not increase the aggressive retaliatory response to a provocation. In triggered displaced aggression, however, one is fully aware of both the initial provocation or frustration and the trigger. Other differences are that excitation transfer consists of direct aggression toward the provocateur and that, unlike excitation transfer, triggered displaced aggression can occur with intervals between a provocation and trigger that well exceed the 5- or 7-minute maximum for excitation transfer.
When displaced aggression is directed at persons who belong to an outgroup, it is called scapegoating. Typically, members of a disliked group are made the target of scapegoating.
- Bushman, B. J., Bonacci, A. M., Pedersen, W C., Vasquez, E. A., & Miller, N. (2005). Chewing on it can chew you up: Effects of rumination on triggered displaced aggression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88, 969-983.
- Denson, T., Pedersen, W. C., & Miller, N. (2006). The Displaced Aggression questionnaire. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90(6), 1032-1051.
- Miller, N., Pedersen, W. C., Earleywine, M., & Pollock, V. E. (2003). A theoretical model of triggered displaced aggression. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 7, 75-97.