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A displacement activity (German Übersprungshandlung, Dutch overspronggedrag, Swedish överslagshandling) is apparently irrelevant activity that is produced as the result of two contradicting instincts in a particular situations of conflict or thwarting.

Birds, for example, may peck at grass when uncertain whether to attack or flee from an opponent; similarly, a human may scratch its head when it does not know which of two options to choose.

The behavior most often occurs in the context of aggressive encounters. So fighting cocks may produce pecking and feeding behavior feeding is combat situations

Displacement activities often involve actions to bring comfort such as scratching, drinking or feeding.

As displacement activity occurs at the equilibrium point of an aggressive or sexual encounters it can be selected through evolution and become incorporated into typical displays through the process of ritualization. So for example the ritualized displacement preening in the courtship displays of some ducks can be more stereotyped than normal preening.[1]

The first description of a displacement activity (though not the use of the term) is probably by Julian Huxley in 1914.[2][3] The subsequent development of research on displacement activities was a direct consequence of Konrad Lorenz's works on instincts. However, the first mentions of the phenomenon came in 1940 by the two Dutch researchers, Nikolaas Tinbergen and Adriaan Kortlandt.[4]

See also[]


  1. McFarland, D. (2006). Oxford Dictionary of Animal Behavior. Oxford:OUP.
  2. Huxley J. 1914. The courtship habits of the Great Crested Grebe (Podiceps cristatus); with an addition to the theory of sexual selection. Proc Zool Soc Lond 647-655.
  3. Huxley J. 1970. Memories. Allen & Unwin, London, p89-90.
  4. Displacement Activities and Arousal

External links[]

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