Displaced Aggression: Definition & Theory

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  • 0:03 What Is Displaced Aggression?
  • 1:14 Theory of Displaced Aggression
  • 2:14 Theory Examples
  • 4:02 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Karin Gonzalez

Karin has taught middle and high school Health and has a master's degree in social work.

In this lesson, you'll learn the difference between aggression and displaced aggression. We'll also review the theory of displaced aggression and look at some examples.

What Is Displaced Aggression?

Tom is having constant difficulty at work. He is regularly being criticized by his supervisor and feels that he is unable to do anything right. When Tom returns home from work, he often yells at his wife and kids.

Aggression encompasses behavior, such as yelling or physical violence, that comes about as a result of feelings of anger. When you are angry, you will often take your anger out on the person causing it. But sometimes you are not able to express your anger directly to the person who is causing it. And if you are unable to resolve your anger, it may become displaced, meaning that it is directed towards something or someone else that has nothing to do with the original conflict.

Displaced aggression is aggressive behavior that cannot be expressed to the actual source that provoked the behavior; instead the anger is taken out on the easiest victim. In the example of Tom, he cannot take his aggression to the source of his anger, his supervisor, due to the possibility of getting fired if he does. Instead, he takes out his anger and dissatisfaction with the way things are going at work on the easiest victims, his wife and kids. After all, his wife and kids usually forgive him.

Theory of Displaced Aggression

The theory of displaced aggression is simply explained in the definition. But there is an additional component of displaced aggression that has fascinated social psychologists and researchers. This is the idea of triggered displaced aggression.

Triggered displaced aggression occurs when a person has anger towards someone (i.e. a supervisor or a coworker) that he or she cannot express to that person directly for fear of consequences, and then later, a mild trigger of annoyance or irritation causes the person to explode with anger due to the pent up frustration that he could not express earlier.

In the case of Tom, the mild trigger could be his wife telling him that his mother-in-law is coming for dinner on Friday night. Tom is really just slightly annoyed that he'll have to put up with his mother-in-law, but he erupts in anger, yelling at his wife at the dinner table, and eventually storming out of the room. This is due to the pent up anger that Tom has repressed. The comment about his mother-in-law was 'the straw that broke the camel's back' if you will.

Theory Examples

Have you ever taken a ride on the metro and accidentally bumped the person next to you, only to be met by an intensely hostile look? You may have been the target of this person's displaced aggression. After all, it was only an accidental bump. You didn't deserve that look! Let's look at a few more examples of displaced aggression.

Olivia, age 16, goes to pick up her younger brother Andrew, age 14, from church youth group as instructed by her mother. In a discourteous and offensive manner, Olivia's younger brother refuses her request to go home with her. He stubbornly reports that he would rather catch a ride with an older youth group member than go home with her. Because he is with his pastor and fellow youth members, Olivia feels she can not object or express her anger with her brother.

But Olivia is enraged. She traveled all the way there only to be met by her brother's rudeness and insensitivity. Insanely angry, she storms into her car and zips back home, only to be met by rush hour traffic. Olivia cuts other drivers off and yells at several drivers on her way home. Olivia's aggressive driving is an example of displaced aggression. Unable to unload her anger on the source (her brother), she resorts to releasing her anger on innocent drivers.

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