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In Freudian psychology, displacement (German Verschiebung "shift, move") is an unconscious defense mechanism whereby the mind substitutes either a new aim or a new object for goals felt in their original form to be dangerous or unacceptable.
A term originating with Sigmund Freud, displacement operates in the mind unconsciously, its transference of emotions, ideas, or wishes being most often used to allay anxiety in the face of aggressive or sexual impulses.
Freud also saw displacement as occurring in jokes, as well as in neuroses — the obsessional neurotic being especially prone to the technique of displacement onto the minute. When two or more displacements occurs towards the same idea, the phenomenon is called condensation (from the German Verdichtung).
Among Freud's mainstream followers, Otto Fenichel highlighted the displacement of affect, either through postponement or by redirection, or both. More broadly, he considered that “in part the paths of displacement depend on the nature of the drives that are warded off”.
Eric Berne in his first, psychoanalytic work, maintained that “some of the most interesting and socially useful displacements of libido occur when both the aim and the object are partial substitutions for the biological aim and object...sublimation”.
In 1957, Jacques Lacan, inspired by an article by linguist Roman Jakobson on metaphor and metonymy, argued that the unconscious has the structure of a language, linking displacement to the poetic function of metonymy, and condensation to that of metaphor.
As he himself put it, “in the case of Verschiebung, 'displacement', the German term is closer to the idea of that veering off of signification that we see in metonymy, and which from its first appearance in Freud is represented as the most appropriate means used by the unconscious to foil censorship”.
The aggressive drive — mortido – may be displaced quite as much as the libidinal. Business or athletic competition, or hunting, for example, offer plentiful opportunities for the expression of displaced mortido.
In such scapegoating, aggression may be displaced onto people with little or no connection with what is causing anger. Some people punch cushions when they are angry at friends; a college student may snap at his or her roommate when upset about an exam grade.
Displacement can act in a chain-reaction, with people unwittingly becoming both victims and perpetrators of displacement. For example, a man is angry with his boss, but he cannot express this so he hits his wife. The wife hits one of the children, possibly disguising this as punishment (rationalization).
A subsidiary form of displacement within the transference occurs when the patient disguises transference references by applying them to an apparent third party or to themself.
A John Aubrey anecdote about Sir Walter Raleigh describes the latter striking his son in the face at a dinner table; whereupon the latter, rather than retaliate directly, struck his neighbour, saying “Box about: 'twill come to my father anon”.
Later writers have objected that whereas Freud only described the displacement of sex into culture, for example, the converse — social conflict being displaced into sexuality – was also true.