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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.

"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."[1]

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:


"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);


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


"[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."[2]

But it was above all in the process of refining the analysis of the transference during treatment and its different manifestations—lateral, indirect, and direct transference[3] — 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.


Like condensation an essential feature of the workings of the unconscious and of dream-work as described by psychoanalysis.

The mechanism of displacement detaches the [affect]] or emotional charge of an unconscious idea and ransfers it to a less intense idea which is linked to the first by a chain of associations.

Both condensation and displacement can also be observed in other unconscious formations sch as symptoms; they are also an important feature of jokes.

Following Jakobson Lacan likens condensatin and displacement to the linguistic mechanisms of metaphor and metonymy.


Displacement is one of the methods by which the repressed returns in hidden ways.

For example, in dreams the affect (emotions) associated with threatening impulses are often transferred elsewhere (displaced), so that, for example, apparently trivial elements in the manifest dream seem to cause extraordinary distress while "what was the essence of the dream-thoughts finds only passing and indistinct representation in the dream."[4]

For Freud, "Displacement is the principle means used in the dream-distortion to which the dream-thoughts must submit under the influence of the censorship."[5]

The same sort of displacement can occur in symptom-formation.

The other method whereby the repressed hides itself is condensation.

See Also


  1. p. 252
  2. 1900a, p. 306, n. 1
  3. Freud, 1915a; Sandór Ferenczi, 1909/1994; Michel Neyraut, 1974
  4. "New Introductory Lectures" 22.21
  5. "New Introductory Lectures" 22.21
  • 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. In Écrits: A selection (Bruce Fink, Trans.). New York: W. W. Norton. (Original work published 1958