Displaced Aggression- Why We Yell at the Customer Service Representative

Think back to a recent bad day you had. Maybe your partner angered you, your kids were particularly noncompliant with your wishes, your boss criticized you unjustly, or you simply hit every single red light on the way to the store. Chances are, every time you have a bad day, you direct some of your negative feelings towards someone who was not involved in your troubles at all. I think back to a bad day I had where I was overstressed at my previous place of work and stopped at Publix on my way home. The cashier was ringing up my items and wasn’t doing it at a pace quick enough for me. When they wished me a nice day, I said nothing and walked away. Was the cashier being extremely slow? No. Were they rude to me at all? No. Did they have anything to do with my job-related stress? No. Yet I directed some of my aggression and anger towards them by ignoring their pleasantry.

Displacement is a “Freudian” term that good ole Sigmund used to describe how we can replace one impulse or desire with another one. For instance, Freud believed a person could have sexual impulses that they were able to replace and satisfy by things like exercise or working. While Freud’s idea of displacement has had critics, it has overall stood up to the test of time as a valuable psychological idea. Displaced Aggression is a particular type of displacement. An example we all are familiar with takes the form of “scapegoating.” An error occurs, you get upset, you punch a couch cushion or snap a pencil. The pencil and cushion have no relation to why you are upset, but they receive your aggressive expression. These are fairly harmless examples, but displaced aggression also occurs between individuals and groups and that is where it can cause major problems.

What did I do!?

In a documentary on stress titled, “Stress, Portrait of a Killer”, Stanford Neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky gives the following example of displaced aggression in the baboon troops he studies:

“You get some big alpha male who loses a fight, and chases a sub-adult, who bites an adult female, who slaps a juvenile, who knocks an infant out of a tree all in 15 seconds.”

Every individual in this sequence starting from the sub-adult on are not aware why they are being tormented. If they could speak, you may hear the baboons yelling, “What did I do to deserve that!?” The alpha male is upset but lacks the ability to take out his aggression on the guilty party (in this case because he will get walloped again) so he finds something else to take it out on. Baboons are notoriously cruel to one another, but we are not free from similar instances in our day to day lives. Perhaps a child is bullied at school, so when he gets home, he is uncooperative to his mother. The mother gets frustrated and is short and tense with her husband. The husband is put off by her attitude and carries that annoyance to the grocery store. The cashier gives him the wrong change and he may say something like, “you can’t even count!” A simple mistake by the cashier has given an outlet for the husband to take out his aggression, caused by his wife’s, caused by their child’s, caused by a bully. The bully suffers no consequences from this sequence. The aggression originated at point A, transferred to B, C, and D, to arrive at point Q.

Placing the Blame on a Related Party

A random individual is often the victim of displaced aggression, but even more likely is that someone who has at least some connection to the original offense is subject to the aggression. When you are mad at the airline company for screwing up your reservation, how nice are you to the representative who does the check ins? They had nothing to do with the reservation process but give you the bad news that there has been a mistake and you will be missing your flight. You may immediately “attack” them with your aggression, as if they were responsible for the entire process and have the power to rectify any errors that may have occurred. This is because you do not have access to direct your frustration towards the true guilty party, at least in that moment, but your anger wants to be heard right now! Counseling and therapy often involve finding sources of frustration that can be hidden. We look for the sources by looking at areas where aggression is manifesting and looking for commonalities. Using attachment theory, which states that the way we learn to form relationships as a child with our caregivers affects how we form relationships with everything, a person may struggle forming friendships as an adult. Therapy can help a client see that all of their failed friendships are due to the client acting out their aggression or frustration with the lack of a strong relationship with their mother or father as a young child. Freud’s idea of displaced aggression can be found even in other therapeutic theories that have very little to do with Freudian psychoanalysis.

How to Manage Displaced Aggression (as the aggressor)

How can we stop ourselves from displacing our aggression on the wrong party? There are a few basic things to try to keep in mind.
• Reacting immediately to something that upsets you doesn’t give your mind time to work out what really is bothering you. Give it a moment, or 10 minutes, and then look at what you are reacting to.
• It may seem that everyone and everything is out to bother you at the same time on some days, but keep in mind this isn’t the case. There is no grand conspiracy to upset you, so the traffic lights all being red is not related to how the T.V. remote isn’t working. Don’t allow your mind to create a spotlight effect where you are the victim of a grand design of annoyance.
• Is being angry or aggressive useful in the situation you find yourself in? Before you even worry about identifying who or what has wronged you, consider if retribution or showing dissatisfaction will solve the problem. Your child and your spouse both have angered you in the same day, is yelling at either one of them going to reduce your tension?
• Don’t let people take advantage of you, but also don’t assume they are being rude or upsetting to you in particular. If the cashier is rude it may be because they had displaced aggression dumped on them prior to you arriving. It does not make it okay that they dump it on you, but realize it is hard to manage this psychological aspect and practice forgiveness.

How to Manage Displaced Aggression (as the victim)
• Similar to the 4th point of the previous section, practice forgiveness while also practicing advocating for yourself. It can be a tough balance, but many situations are self-evident as to whether they demand you to speak up to the person who is displacing onto you or if simple forgiveness is what is called for.
• BREAK THE CHAIN! If you are the baboon who gets bit by the sub-adult who is the 3rd link of the displaced aggression chain, avoid becoming the 4th link and passing it on to anyone else. Don’t bring others and their negative energy into your home. Take a drive or a moment before walking in to leave that feeling of anger outside and move into your new space with a fresh perspective.

If you are struggling with displaced aggression as either the aggressor or the victim, please contact Life Enhancement Counseling Services today at 407-443-8862 to schedule an appointment with one of our experienced Orlando mental health counselors.


Tom Daniele