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For Freud, displacement (a primary process) means the transference of physical intensities (1900a, p. 306) along an "associative path," so that strongly cathected ideas have their charge displaced onto other, less strongly cathected ones. This process is active in the formation of hysterical or obsessional symptoms, in the dream work, in the production of jokes, and in the transference.

Between 1887 and 1902 the concept of displacement appeared several times in Freud's writings (in Drafts K and M in his correspondence with Wilhelm Fliess, in the "Project for a Scientific Psychology" [1950c (1895)], and in The Interpretation of Dreams [1900a]). It was introduced in connection with his clinical work, apropos of the analysis of neurotic symptoms and paranoia. In Draft M (1950a), Freud described the types of displacement that result in compromise-formations. He distinguished "Displacement by association: hysteria.; Displacement by (conceptual) similarity: obsessional neurosis (characteristic of the place at which the defence occurs, and perhaps also of the time).; Causal displacement: paranoia" (p. 252).

In addition, in his search for a model of psychic functioning still informed by the scientific thinking and medical research of the time, Freud noted: "Hysterical repression evidently takes place with the help of symbol-formation, of displacements on to other neurones. We might think, then, that the riddle resides only in the mechanism of this displacement, and that there is nothing to be explained about repression itself" (1950c [1895], p. 352). Displacement, at work to a pathological degree in hysteria, "is thus probably a primary process, since it can easily be demonstrated in dreams" (Ibid., p. 353).

It was in fact Freud's analysis of the dream work that led him to discover the importance of displacement. He noted in The Interpretation of Dreams that: a) "The consequence of the displacement is that the dream-content no longer resembles the core of the dream-thoughts and . . . the dream gives no more than a distortion of the dream-wish which exists in the unconscious" (p. 308); b) Dream distortion can be "traced . . . back to the censorship which is exercised by one psychical agency in the mind over another.... dream-displacement comes about through the influence of the same censorship" (p. 308); and c) "[A] transference and displacement of psychical intensities occurs in the process of dream-formation" (pp. 307-308).

The notion of displacement did not see much further development. In his various revisions to his theories on dreams, Freud focused more on the separation of images from the affects that had been attached to them, on the vicissitudes of these affects (displacement, conservation, metamorphosis), and on the fate of images (stripped of affect) in relation to the "sensory intensity of the image presented" (1900a, p. 306, n. 1). But it was above all in the process of refining the analysis of the transference during treatment and its different manifestationslateral, indirect, and direct transference (Freud, 1915a; Sandór Ferenczi, 1909/1994; Michel Neyraut, 1974)that the notion of displacement was expanded. It was further explored, too, by such authors as Jacques Lacan (1957/2002; 1958/2002) and Guy Rosolato (1969) who took as their starting point the work of linguists (Ullmann, 1952; Jakobson and Halle, 1956) on the relationship between signifier and signified, and on metonymy (displacement by contiguity) and metaphor (displacement by substitution).

Displacement is often linked to substitution. Not infrequently, this link is made without an adequate distinction being drawn in temporal terms between substitution where there is an immediate exchange based on the disavowal of one of the two poles involved (perceptual, hallucinatory, or conceptual substitutions), and substitution where deferred action comes into play.

Elsa Schmidt-Kitsikis

See also: Actual neurosis/defense neurosis; Amphimixia/amphimixis; "Analysis of a Phobia in a Five-year-old Boy (little Hans)"; Cathexis; Day's residues; Defense mechanisms; Dream symbolism; Dream work; Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence, The ; Forgetting; Hysteria; Interpretation of dreams; Interpretation of Dreams, The ; Jokes; Latent; Masculinity/femininity; Metonymy; Myths; Neurotic defenses; Obsessional neurosis; Over-determination; Phobias in children; Primary process/secondary process; "Project for a Scientific Psychology, A"; Signifier/signified; "Splitting of the Ego in the Processes of Defence, The"; Substitutive formation; Symbolization, process of; Symptom-formation; Unconscious, the.


Ferenczi, Sándor. (1909). Introjection and transference. In Final contribution to the problems and methods of psychoanalysis Michael Balint (Ed.). London: Karnac Books.

Freud, Sigmund. (1900a). The interpretation of dreams. Part 1, SE, 4: 1-338; Part 2, SE, 5: 339-625.

. (1915a). Observations on transference love (Further recommendations on the technique of psychoanalysis III). SE, 12: 157-71.

. (1950a [1887-1902]), Extracts from the Fliess papers. SE, 1: 173-280.

. (1950c [1895]). Project for a scientific psychology. SE, 1: 295-391.

. (1985c [1887-1904]). The complete letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess 1887-1904 ( Jeffrey M. Masson, Ed. and Trans.). Cambridge, MA: Belknap/Harvard University Press.

Jakobson, Roman, and Halle, Morris. (1956). Fundamentals of language (4th ed.). The Hague, New York: Mouton.

Lacan, Jacques. (2002). The agency of the letter in the unconscious or reason since Freud. InÉcrits: A selection (Bruce Fink, Trans.). New York: W. W. Norton. (Original work published 1957)

. (2002). The signification of the phallus. InÉcrits: A selection (Bruce Fink, Trans.). New York: W. W. Norton. (Original work published 1958

Neyraut, Michel. (1974). Le transfert. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Rosolato, Guy. (1969). Essais sur le symbolique. Paris: Gallimard.

Ullmann, Stephen. (1952). Précis de sémantique française. Bern: Francke.

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dis·place·ment / disˈplāsmənt/ • n. 1. the moving of something from its place or position: vertical displacement of the shoreline | a displacement of the vertebra at the bottom of the spine. ∎  the removal of someone or something by someone or something else that takes their place: males may be able to resist displacement by other males. ∎  the enforced departure of people from their homes, typically because of war, persecution, or natural disaster: the displacement of farmers by guerrilla activity. ∎  the amount by which a thing is moved from its normal position: a displacement of 6.8 meters along the San Andreas fault. 2. the occupation by a submerged body or part of a body of a volume that would otherwise be occupied by a fluid. ∎  the amount or weight of fluid that would fill such a volume in the case of a floating ship, used as a measure of the ship's size: the submarine has a surface displacement of 2,185 tons. ∎  technical the volume swept by a reciprocating system, as in a pump or engine. 3. Psychoanalysis the unconscious transfer of an intense emotion from its original object to another one: this phobia was linked with the displacement of fear of his father. 4. Physics the component of an electric field due to free separated charges, regardless of any polarizing effects. ∎  the vector representing such a component. ∎  the flux density of such an electric field.

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displacement A process whereby strong negative or positive emotions directed towards an object or person are, because they are for some reason blocked, redirected on to another object or person. See also DEFENCE MECHANISMS; PSYCHOANALYSIS.

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A term used in parapsychology for a form of extrasensory perception (ESP) in a test series, in which correct information about targets is displaced backward or forward from the actual target. If there is a consistent pattern of scoring one or two places from the target, this might have significance for ESP instead of just being a series of misses.

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displacement The relative movement on either side of a fault plane; it may be in any direction parallel to the plane. The finite displacement on a fault plane is defined by a straight line connecting the positions of the initial and final points.

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