Vacuum, Displacement, and Redirected Activities

We have seen that action patterns are frequently triggered by a highly specific stimulus, which the ethologists called a sign stimulus or releaser. However, sometimes action patterns appear for no obvious reason at all. Vacuum activity is the name Lorenz gave to behaviors set off for no apparent reason, "in a vacuum." Lorenz suggested that animals have a need to exercise biologically natural behaviors, even if the behavior has no function.

For example, Lorenz kept a fly-catching bird as an indoor pet. Sometimes he let the bird fly around the room for exercise. He noticed that, although there were no insects present, the bird snapped at imaginary insects in the air. There was no reason to do so; the bird was just exercising its instinctive action pattern. Lorenz called this a vacuum activity.

What is a vacuum activity?

Similarly, squirrels raised from birth in a metal cage will go through the entire sequence of nut‑burying activities, despite the lack of dirt or a nut in the cage. The squirrel scratches rapidly on the metal cage floor, digging an imaginary hole, takes its imaginary nut and buries it in the imaginary hole, finally patting the metal floor as if pushing dirt and leaves over a buried nut.

What is displacement activity?

Displacement activities as described by Lorenz are motor programs that seem to discharge tension or anxiety. For example, if one is trying to entice a squirrel to come up and take a peanut, the squirrel becomes conflicted-caught between two incompatible drives. It wants the nut, but it fears humans. The squirrel is caught between approach and avoidance tendencies, but it cannot do both at once. It becomes visibly edgy. It may take a few hops toward the human holding the peanut, then scratch itself suddenly or make a few digging movements. This does not mean the squirrel itches or needs to dig a hole. Lorenz suggested it was "breaking the tension" caused by competing urges.

What are examples of displacement activities in humans? What research took place in the waiting room of a dentist's office?

Humans perform displacement activities. One study involved a hidden video camera in a dentist's office waiting room. People waiting to have cavities filled showed all sorts of displacement activities, scratching their heads, stroking non-existent beards, wringing their hands, tugging at earlobes, flipping through magazines at one page per second, and so forth. People waiting for X-rays or teeth cleaning showed fewer of these activities. Like the squirrels approaching a human holding a nut, patients waiting to have cavities filled were caught between two contradictory impulses. They wanted to get the cavities filled, but they probably wanted to leave, also. So they performed nervous activities.

What is redirected activity?

Redirected activity is a third example of action patterns aroused in unusual circumstances. Lorenz defined a redirected activity as a behavior that is redirected from a threatening or inaccessible target to another target that is more convenient or less threatening.

For example, flocks of chickens form a pecking order. Chickens form a rigid dominance hierarchy based on status differences respected by all animals in the group. In a chicken coop, each chicken has some other chickens it can peck (because they are less dominant) and some it cannot peck (because they are more dominant, usually larger). At the top of the hierarchy is a chicken that can peck all the others but gets pecked by nobody. At the bottom of the pecking order is a chicken, usually scrawny or unhealthy, which gets pecked by all the others. Sometimes the chicken at the bottom of the pecking order dies from this treatment.

Similar phenomena occur in human organizations, when "higher ups" are disciplined by their superiors but cannot respond in kind, so they take it out on their subordinates. One student wrote:

I was in the Marines for four years and in this time I noticed the pecking order in humans all the time.

I was a sergeant and one week we had company inspection all that week. For some reason our colonel was in a real bad mood. This meant that our major would get chewed out and then the captains. And then the captain would chew out the lieutenants and the lieutenants would chew out the gunnery sergeant and then it would get down to me. And like everyone else I made it rough on my corporals and it just would go right on down the line where the lowest one in rank would be in real trouble. This happened all the time, because if one person wasn't in a bad mood, someone else would get that way before the day was finished. So, in the military, the pecking order is almost a daily happening. "Everything rolls downhill" and like a snowball it gets bigger closer to the bottom. [Author's files]

A different form of redirected activity may have played a role in early American comparative psychology, although it was not recognized as such. E.R. Guthrie was studying trial-and-error learning of a cat in a puzzle-box. Guthrie required the cat to push against a wooden pole in the middle of the box. When the cat pressed the pole, a glass door on the front of the cage swung open, and the cat escaped. Guthrie interpreted this as an act of learning based on the Thorndike's Law of Effect. As Moore and Stuttard (1979) note:


A behavior similar to what Guthrie observed in the puzzle-box

Great importance was attached to the manner in which their "learning" was expressed. The animals' responses were described as highly stereotyped, with long series of movements repeated "in remarkable detail" from trial to trial.

How did Guthrie's cat show redirected activity?

Each experimental session began with the cat being placed in the cage, while Guthrie, Horton, and "as many as eight guests sat in front of the glass-fronted chamber, unconcealed by any blind." Pictures from Guthrie's article show the cat rubbing on the pole in the middle of the cage. Obviously (to Moore and Stuttard) the cat was greeting its visitors. Rubbing is a cat's stereotyped greeting behavior. Because the humans were not physically available for rubbing, the cat redirected the motor program to the pole in the cage. You can see the same thing in any friendly pet cat. It will rub not only your ankles but also nearby furniture.

This illustrates how times change and perceptions change with them. In the same situation where comparative psychologists of the 1930s saw trial-and-error learning (in accordance with "universal laws of learning") animal behaviorists of the late 1970s saw a species-typical behavior, redirected in the classic manner described by Lorenz. Psychologists studying animal behavior had adopted the concepts of the ethologists.


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