Revitalizing Political Psychology: The Legacy of Harold D. Lasswell

By William Ascher; Barbara Hirschfelder-Ascher | Go to book overview

Chapter 2
The Displacement Hypothesis

This chapter reviews and extends Lasswell's displacement hypothesis, his most direct and prominent application of psychoanalytic theory. Impulses and affects that are unacceptable on either an individual or a societal level are displaced or otherwise transformed in their focus or nature. In some instances, these displacements may occur without conscious awareness of the connection between the original and the resulting impulses or affects. This lack of awareness itself may complicate the resolution of political and policy issues, because lack of insight can hamper efforts to identify and resolve the issues of truly greatest concern.

Thus, Lasswell's framework for understanding displacement phenomena can incorporate the unconscious dynamics of Freudian theory. We believe that openness to the possibility of unconscious dynamics is necessary for a comprehensive behavioral framework, whether or not any particular instance of displacement entails unconscious mechanisms. Yet, Lasswell's fundamental notion of displacement is equally capable of facilitating the examination of alternative dynamics that do not invoke psychoanalytic premises concerning the unconscious. This is important for convincing political psychologists—skeptical about Freudian theory and the utility of the concept of the unconscious—that Lasswell's insights about displacement mechanisms are still compelling.

The displacement hypothesis invokes Freudian dynamics by positing that certain thoughts or emotions are so painful, threatening, or overwhelming that the individual will repress them, and redirect them onto more remote or otherwise less potent objects. 23 The impulses behind these thoughts or emotions range from hostility (aggressiveness, jealousy, etc. ) to affection. Hostile impulses originally targeted at relatives or other close individuals pose obvious emotional risks, but less obviously problematic emotions may as well. For example, strong affection toward same-gender individuals often provokes anxiety in homophobic cultures, or an affection that is thwarted by an unresponsive parent may be displaced because of the emotional discomfort caused by the inability to express the affection or to receive reciprocation. 24

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