Comparison of Displaced Aggression and Excitation Transfer Theory

by Tame Counts

All Rights Reserved

Comparison of Displaced Aggression and Excitation Transfer Theory

This report compares the tenets of two theories, Displaced Aggression and Excitation Transfer, in terms of how they explain violent tendencies in human beings.

Displaced Aggression Theory


The theory of displaced aggression is extrapolated from the “Frustration-Aggression” theory proposed by the book Frustration and Aggression (Dollard et al., 1939.)  This book was one of the firsts to establish that frustration causes aggression. Frustration is defined by Dollard as a feeling of “annoyance and irritation” that is caused when something gets in the way of meeting a goal. Aggression is defined as an intention of malice toward a source of deep frustration. According to Miller (2015), the importance of Dollard’s benchmark studies in frustration and aggression is that it can provide a research-based standard, as well as a medium, to further analyze the reasons behind violent behaviors in people (Miller, 2016, p. 77.)

Premise of the Theory

Displaced aggression entails the transference of frustration, anger, and other violent emotions onto a source that has nothing to do with the situation that caused the aggression in the first place.  However, the key thing is to emphasize in that this transfer of aggressions happens minutes, hours or days after the triggering event takes place. Ideally, when something causes anger or frustration in people, the typical reaction would be to confront to the source that is causing the stress. This is a way for people to defend themselves, or at least control the situation in a way that they can prevent it from happening again. Displaced aggression can occur without any triggering, however, when the trigger is present it is called eponymously “Triggered Displaced Aggression.” (Bushman, 2015, p. 971)

Triggered Displaced Aggression:

Triggered displaced aggression refers to circumstances when someone who is ruminating, that is, seething in anger about a situation that is beyond control, is provoked by someone else for whatever reason. The obvious result is that the displaced aggressor will respond with anger or violence. An example of the situation is when someone is upset and a friend, relative, mocks, laughs at, or further insults the aggressor. When people attempt to add fire to the situation, they just make it worse for themselves. (Miller, 2016 p. 79)

Rumination:  An Way to Displaced Aggression

The main issue with displaced aggression is that the individual is unable to immediately respond to the source of anger because of variable circumstances. It could be fear to confront, or inability to confront. For this reason, the frustration levels may actually increase due to the inability to instantly take control at the onset of the frustration. Normally, people respond immediately to things, or to people who are bothering them. The result is that they ruminate, or sulk in frustration, for not being able to respond immediately. Still, the anger persists, and may even increase. There is a need to find an outlet to the negative energy. (Bushman, 2015, p. 973)


Scapegoating is another implication of displaced aggression. It consists on blaming someone for something happening, whether that person is guilty or not. This type of displaced aggression is noninvasive, that is, the anger is not expressed violently. For instance, people who are not content with the government’s way of dealing with a situation may find a solution, albeit false, in blaming a minority group or ethnic group for whatever the government is doing. (Dollard, 1939)


Excitation Transfer Theory


Studies on excitation-transfer began as early as the 1960s and continue until today. The pioneer of this research was Dolf Zillman (Bryant, 2013). The origin behind the theory was a study on residual excitation, or drive theory, made by Clark Hull (1962). According to Bryant, (2013) Zillman used Hull’s residual excitation theory and mixed it with the two-factor theory by Schachter (1962). In this latter theory, Schachter explains that people use a two-factor model to explain emotions. It is a formulaic tendency to explain things with the first thing they can think of: “My bones hurt because it is about to rain,” or, “You hurt my feeling, so I am crying now.” Zillman just realized that the two-factor model and the residual excitation may help explain sudden bouts of aggression at the sight of something, or by hearing something. (Bryant, 2013, p. 32)

Premise of the Theory

The idea behind Excitation Transfer Theory (ETT) is to explain why some people react violently, aggressively, or even emotionally, at variables that come out of nowhere, and have nothing to do with those primary emotions. In this case, the key word is “residual excitation.” In the words of Hull (1962), residual excitation basically means every feeling someone has been carrying inside from other events. It is leftover emotion and energy. Therefore, according to this theory, people will transfer the sum of all emotions that are stored within them onto something that happens suddenly in the environment, whether it has to do with their emotions or not. (Cummings, 2017)



Tears of Joy and Scapegoating: Examples of ETT

A good example for ETT would be the concept of “tears of joy,” or when people cry in the presence of a positive event.  The implication in these cases, according to ETT, is that the individual had been likely harboring feelings of insecurity, sadness, melancholy, stress, or anxiety for quite some time. When something happens that triggers the emotional storage of the individual, he or she will transfer their inner emotions onto that event or trigger. (Cummings, 2017)


In a similar manner to displaced aggression, ETT may also lead to scapegoating. If you think about it, if people are capable to allow independent triggers to influence current emotional baggage, even when it has nothing to do with it in the first place, the chances are that people will resort to scapegoating are very high. For example, when a politician fails to win the election, feelings of resentment build up among the constituents.  However, rather than blaming the candidate’s inability to reach the people, they blame the voters; people who, individually, had no idea whether their vote would make a difference or not. Blaming is the easiest way to release responsibility. (Cummings, 2017)

How does ETT differ from displaced aggression:  Conclusion

Displaced aggression implies that people will find an outlet for their frustration, even hours after the inciting event takes place. This is simply because anger needs an outlet. The main thing is that, during displaced aggression, the transference of energy onto an unrelated third party happens after a period of time. (Cummings, 2017)

ETT, on the contrary, is the instant, sometimes involuntary, and sometimes disparate, reaction to something in the environment that has triggered the bottled-up emotions of a person. The individual may or may not know the emotions that are leading to the reaction, nor may know any correlation between the triggering event and the reaction. The epitome of “crying of joy” is the best example for ETT.

While there is not a final answer that determines whether humans are born violent, or free from violent tendencies, theories such as Displaced Aggression and Excitation Transfer attempt to bring added dimensions to current philosophies that could, at the least, help to predict the behaviors, thus preventing their consequences.

Implications of whether humans are born violent or not: Conclusion

The conclusion of this report is that, within the parameters of these two theories, there is an implication that humans are born with a capacity for violence when triggering factors are present.  In other words, people are capable to act out anger and violence, whether instantly or in a delayed manner. While this does not entirely explain the nature of violence, it helps to show that anger and frustration need an outlet before they result turns to violence. Therefore, this report is an open call to continue to find ways to predict and prevent violent behavior.

The differences between displaced aggression and ETT helps us to see that violence occurs, yet, it can still be controlled. Avoiding rumination, deflecting negative thoughts, and channeling negative energy in a positive way may be the best ways to avoid violent reactions in the future, especially coming from people who are easily triggered and lack the channels to express themselves.






Theories Displaced Aggression Theory ETT
Origin Frustration-Aggression” theory proposed by the book Frustration and Aggression (Dollard et al., 1939.) Zillman (1969) combined Hull’s Residual Excitation theory and mixed it with the Two-Factor theory by Schachter (1962)
Premises ·         People who cannot immediately act upon an incident that causes anger, will ruminate upon it and act it out later.

·         People will transfer their aggression into something that has nothing to do with the event that caused stress.


·         People will transfer anger upon something unrelated to the factors that cause anger.

·         These factors that cause anger are triggers in the environment.

·         These triggers activate emotions that are already built up within, caused by other things.


Similarities ·         Aggression is transferred onto an unrelated, third party.

·         Scapegoating is a possibility.

·         Theory helps to predict and prevent violent episodes.

·         Aggression is transferred into an unrelated, third party.

·         Scapegoating is possible

·         Theory helps to predict and prevent violent episodes.


Differences ·         Reaction to the inciting event that cause anger is delayed for a number of reasons.

·         Displaced Aggression can be triggered by someone making things worse, causing an immediate reaction. This is NOT to be confused with ETT. The triggerer in this case is angering the aggressor ON PURPOSE.

·         Reaction to event that causes anger can be immediate, but still unrelated to the inciting event.

·         This looks like triggered displaced aggression but the difference is that the triggering event in this case is not aware that it is causing any reaction in the individual.

Examples A teenager is insulted by a parent, and he/she cannot act the way they would because they cannot overpower the parent. Therefore, after ruminating for some time, they take their anger on a friend, or someone else who they can overpower. A woman who has experienced bad relationships for most of her life has a baggage of emotions packed within. Upon entering the next relationship, without resolving her issues, she will react angrily, even violently, at any action that the new partner does because it will trigger her past emotions. This is not the fault of the new partner, but of the woman for not resolving her issues prior to jumping into another man.



Bryant, J. (2013). Excitation-transfer theory. Communication and emotion: Essays in honor of

Dolf Zillmann (pp. 31-59). Mahwah: Erlbaum

            Retrieved from


Bushman, B. J., (2015). Chewing on it can chew you up: Effects of rumination on triggered

displaced aggression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88, p. 969-983.  Retrieved from

Cummings, R. (2017) Excitation Transfer Theory. Boston: Rössler and Hoffner

Dollard, J., et. al (1939). Frustration and aggression. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Miller, N (2016). A theoretical model of triggered displaced aggression. Personality and Social

Psychology Review, 7, p. 75-97

Retrieved from