Displaced Aggression

From PsychWiki - A Collaborative Psychology Wiki

Jump to: navigation, search



Displaced aggression is thought to occur when a person who is initially provoked cannot retaliate directly against the source of that provocation and, instead, subsequently aggresses against a seemingly innocent target (Pedersen, Gonzales, & Miller, 2000). Miller (1948) proposed a specific model to account for the occurrence of displaced aggression; that is, instances in which individuals aggress against persons other than their frustraters (Baron & Richardson, 1994). He suggested that an aggressor’s target is based on three factors: (1) strength of instigation to aggression; (2) strength of inhibition to aggression; and (3) the stimulus similarity of each potential victim to the frustrating agent (Baron & Richardson, 1994). Displaced aggression, then, is predicted to be most likely against targets who are restrained from retaliation but for whom provocation to the frustrater is still relatively high (Baron & Richardson, 1994). In these instances, the aggressor selects the most vulnerable target whom is in the position of being unable to retaliate and who is the most stimulating to the frustrater’s already existing frustration.

In a commonly used anecdote to illustrate displaced aggression, a man is berated by his boss but does not retaliate because he fears losing his job (Marcus-Newhall, Pedersen, Carlson, & Miller, 2000). Hours later, when he arrives home to the greeting barks of his dog he responds by kicking it (Marcus-Newhall, et al., 2000). In the Marcus-Newhall (2000) article review, displaced aggression can be defined as a level of aggression toward a target that, in terms of the tit-for-tat rule (Axelrod, 1984), incommensurately exceeds that which is ordinarily seen as justified by the level of provocation emitted by that target. Those who have been provoked and are unable to retaliate tend to interpret negative interactions even more negatively. In turn, the aggressor is more likely to aggress towards new targets regardless of targets emitting behavior seen as deserving of aggressive retaliation (Marcus-Newhall, et al., 2000).

Vasquez, Lickel, & Hennigan (2010) discussed three factors that can inhibit aggression against the original instigator and set a context for displacement. The three factors discussed are as follow: The unavailability of the provoking individual, intangible instigators, and the fear of retaliation from the provocateur (Vasquez, et al. 2010). Vazquez, et al. (2010) found that in such cases, direct aggression towards the instigator is inhibited in order to avoid punishment from the target. When any of these factors comes into play, aggression is more likely to be targeted towards individuals who are safer and/or available for punishment (Vasquez, et al. 2010). One interesting finding in this meta-analysis is that, for participants who are previously provoked, the more negative the setting in which they interact with their target, the greater the levels of aggression they displace (Marcus-Newhall et al., 2000).

Example / Application - Real-Life

In a recent news story from FOXNews.com entitled “Charlie Sheen and Brooke Mueller Holding Off on Divorce” (McKay, 2010), there is a report that “Two and a Half Men” star, Charlie Sheen, and wife, Brooke Mueller, are close to filling divorce. On Christmas of Day last year, Sheen was arrested on domestic violence charges after allegedly threatening his wife (McKay, 2010). According to one source found by McKay (2010), Sheen is said to be in serious need to protect his image and stay married until he has resolved his charges with Colorado authorities. While other sources says that Sheen plans to secure a bigger and better deal with Warner Bros. by returning to his hit show “Two and a Half Men” (McKay, 2010).

According to TMZ, Sheen (who currently makes $825G per episode) is now seeking to earn $1.5 million. The WB, however, is only offering $1 million (McKay, 2010). Another source added that Sheen needs his creditability in order to gain a greater bargaining power, and that a divorce would look terrible on his behalf. Financially, everything needs to be in place before any divorce filling; and there is doubt that he’ll leave his current show because he needs the money. Who else is going to hire him (McKay, 2010)? The research on displaced aggression may help explain Sheen’s domestic violence charge; the news article allegedly accuses Sheen of abusing his wife while simultaneously trying to make a “bigger and better” deal with the Warner Bros., regarding his show “Two and a Half Men”.

This news article demonstrates displaced aggression in real-world perspective because Charlie Sheen is charged with threatening his wife while also in the midst of settling a deal for his hit show. Charlie Sheen’s deal with the Warner Bros. can influence aggressive behavior because the deal is not going ad he has planned it. Sheen’s deal with the WB can explain why he and his wife are having so many problems. From previous research, Sheen’s wife would be seen as a target available for punishment. Seeing that the Warner Bros. is the only company offering Charlie Sheen a job, it is reasonable to conclude that Sheen’s withheld aggression towards the company led him to take his anger out on his wife. In this situation, Sheen’s aggressive behavior could not have been reduced based on his image being at risk, along with the possibility of losing his job, and the possibility of losing his entire career.

Example / Application – Columbine

So now we ask: does displaced aggression help explain the mass killings at Columbine High School by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold? The original news reports after the massacre that both boys were social outcasts seeking revenge against the “jocks” who had bullied them unmercifully for years (Stenstorm, n.d.). In an article on USAToday.com, the killings were said to have ignited a national debate over bullying. Recent records, in contrast, shows that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold hadn't been bullied — in fact, they had bragged in diaries about picking on freshmen and "fags" (Toppo, 2009). According to displaced aggression research, triggering events on displaced aggression provokes participants to be more likely to displace aggression towards targets who provide a second instigation (Vasquez, 2010); however, for the Columbine incident this was not the case. In fact, the pair's suicidal attack was planned as a grand — if badly implemented — terrorist bombing that quickly turned into a 49-minute shooting rampage when the bombs Harris built fizzled (Vasquez, 2010).

After reading the article by Greg Toppo, it is clear that Harris and Klebold had psychological problems and that this suicidal mission was not set to displace their aggression on others, but was a planned terrorist attack of their imagination. Toppo (2009) describes Harris and Klebold as a deeply disturbed, suicidal pair who over more than a year psyched each other up for an Oklahoma City-style terrorist bombing, an apolitical, over-the-top revenge fantasy against years of snubs, slights and cruelties, real and imagined. However, according to evidence discovered after the killings, the last journal entry by Harris read, “I hate you people for leaving me out of so many fun things” and Klebold’s journal read, “I have always been hated, by everyone and everything” (Toppo, 2009 & Stenstorm, n.d.). From these journal entries, we can see how someone, with many mental challenges, can create a situation causing them to aggress towards innocent bystanders. By not having a true source of aggression, Harris and Klebold selected targets to displace their aggression on as a result to the failure of their previous plan. The two boys involved in the shooting were delusional and the aggressive behavior they were going through could not fully be solved through displaced aggression itself, these boys needed serious help. In result, we discover that displaced aggression can be applied to the columbine shooting and can aid in the understanding of why Harris and Klebold committed such heinous act against their peers.


Baron, R. & Richardson, D. (1994). Human Aggression. (2nd edition). NY: Plenum.

Marcus-Newhall, A., Pedersen, W., Carlson, M., & Miller, N. (2000). Displaced aggression is alive and well: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78(4), 670-689.

McKay, H. (2010). Charlie Sheen and Brooke Muller Holding Off on Divorce. Retrieved May 11, 2010 from foxnews.com: http://www.foxnews.com/entertainment/2010/05/04/charlie-sheen-brooke-mueller-holding-divorce/

Pedersen, W., Gonzales, C., & Miller, N. (2000). The moderating effect of trivial triggering provocation on displaced aggression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78(5), 913-927.

Stenstorm, D. (n.d.) Crossed Categorization.

Toppo, G. (2009). 10 years later, the real story behind Columbine. Retrieved May 10, 2010 from usatoday.com: http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2009-04-13-columbine-myths_N.htm

Vasquez, E., Lickel, B., & Hennigan, K. (2010). Gangs, displaced, and group-based aggression. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 15(2), 130-140.

◄ Back to Spring 2010 - PSY 307 page

Personal tools