Oct 12 2011

Consequence Displacement

It has been a while since I coined any new psychology terms.  Too long.  I have another one I’ve been dying to share, because it happens all the time to everyone, and something that happens this frequently always deserves its own terminology.  It has to do with all the times when we feel consequences we know we don’t deserve.  I’ve found that some of these situations break down in interesting ways.

Suppose your spouse signs your child up for gymnastics despite your protest that the sport of gymnastics is very demanding on family schedules.  Your spouse reassures you that they will bear all the burden of the difficult schedule.  Months go by, and your child is absolutely in love with the sport.

Your spouse then decides to switch careers, and their new career makes it impossible for them to drive your child to and from gymnastics.  This forces you to make unpopular sacrifices at work as you now take over the chauffeuring of your child to gymnastics. Consequence displacement is a term to describe what happens when one or more people feel the negative consequences of others’ unintentionally negative actions.  In the case of this example, the consequences of your spouse signing your child up for gymnastics are displaced to you.

  • Negative consequences must be genuinely felt.  For example, suppose your roommate breaks the shades on the sliding glass door in your living room so that they cannot be opened.  Suppose also that you would live in a cave if you could, which means that you actually prefer the darkness that is resulting from the broken shades.  In this scenario, you do not suffer from consequence displacement, although it would be very easy to be manipulative by pretending to suffer from it (perhaps giving more “leverage” for disputes in the future).
  • Unintentionally refers to actions that are not intended to cause harm to others.  Suffering with broken ribs because of being mugged would not be an example of consequence displacement – it would be simple victimhood.  Consequence displacement would be a more specific type of victimhood where the perpetrator has no malicious intent. Or, when a gang member spraypaints their codes onto City Hall, giving a special term to this is extremely uninteresting – not only do we already terms for it (victimhood, vandalism), the displacement scenario is no longer a surprise; it is the expected outcome of the perpetrator (in fact, it is the only outcome).  When there is no surprise, there is no irony, and I believe it is the irony which makes this term necessary.
  • Negative actions refer to actions that are of negative value or at least questionable value.1  Parking one’s car in the street three feet forward from where the car is normally parked may cause a boy riding his bicycle to crash because of changes to his daily route, but since moving the car is an action of neutral value, consequence displacement is not possible (we only have an accident).  And needless to say, consequence displacement is also not possible when involving actions of positive value, such as installing solar lights in your front yard, which may cause head injury if someone mowing your lawn were to trip and fall on one (again, we have an accident).
  • Consequence displacement doesn’t require 100% of the consequence to be displaced.  If someone bears 90% of the consequences of their own unintentionally negative actions, and someone else bears the other 10%, consequence displacement still takes place.

The unintentional criterion can sometimes get a little hazy.  For example, if my neighbor allows his dog to deposit a feces land mine on my lawn and doesn’t clean it up, I don’t believe my neighbor is intentionally causing me harm, although he may still be aware of the harm that is caused.  Consequence displacement still takes place, because the action is not motivated by malicious intent – it is motivated by laziness or lack of empathy.

Some more examples:

  • The failures of Washington and Wall Street caused a financial crisis, and the bailout was paid for by you and me.  We continue to feel these displaced consequences of greed and failure in leadership through jobs, the housing market, etc.
  • If a high school student becomes pregnant, many consequences are typically displaced to the high school student’s parents.  Many other family examples are easy to imagine here:  elderly who didn’t plan well for their retirement who must rely on their children for support, people getting fired from their jobs by fault of their own and having to move in with another family member, etc.
  • All of the animals and people that were affected by the BP oil spill experienced consequence displacement caused by irresponsible behaviors of BP, Halliburton and Transocean.
  • Microsoft made terrible mistakes when they released Microsoft Internet Explorer version 7. These mistakes caused millions of web programmers all over the world to have to write special code just for MIE in order to make their websites display properly.
  • Being affected by secondhand smoke, being in an accident because of a drunk driver

Consequence displacement need not be unforseen.  Sometimes it takes place by design, such as with the business of insurance or the institution of welfare.  Consequence displacement is also inevitable for nearly every single decision that leaders make, whether it is the president committing more troops to a conflict or legislators voting on a health care bill.  There are nearly always negative consequences of every major decision leaders make, even when they make the best decision.

A more specific (and worse) type of consequence displacement would be consequence inversion, where consequences of unintentionally negative actions are felt by those who are specifically trying to avoid taking those same negative actions themselves.  Suppose your spouse uses things in the house that are intended to be communal such as tools, and they sometimes fail to put them away after using them.  You, on the other hand, are very diligent about always putting things away after using them.  Your spouse is spared the 15 seconds it would take to put the tools away, while it costs you at least that much time to put them away (or perhaps 10 times that amount of time to go searching for them if you don’t know where they are). You suffer the consequences (or with lost tools, multiplied consequences) of your spouse’s behavior. Worse, when you put the tools away, your spouse’s behavior is reinforced, making the behavior even more likely to repeat.

Other examples of consequence inversion:

  • Some people who opt not to buy health insurance use the ER as their form of “primary care” and are often unable to pay for all (or any) of the associated medical expenses.  Whether they do this because they are poor or they do it because they simply don’t want to pay, the fact remains that the consequences of their actions are inverted: those who do buy health insurance suffer from extremely high insurance rates because there aren’t enough people sharing the load, and they still end up paying a lot of money for their hospital visits on top of their insurance premiums:  they have their deductibles, copayments, and out-of-pocket maximums.
  • There was a 2011 outbreak of whooping cough in California, and it killed many babies.  The results in California were the same as with Michigan in a 2008 study:  all of the counties that had the highest outbreaks were also the same counties with the highest percentage of those who did not get their vaccination due to personal belief exemptions.  Babies are already at risk of dying of whooping cough since they cannot get vaccinated until 2 months old, and also since no vaccine is 100% effective (so there is still a very small risk for anyone to get whooping cough and transmit it to a baby).  Consequence inversion is experienced by any babies whose exposure wouldn’t have taken place without the extra number of non-vaccinations in their counties.  (Click here to hear the strong words that Michael Specter has to share on the subject of vaccines and organic foods.  The “meat” of this TED Talk begins at around 3:30.)
  • The gymnastics example above is another example of consequence inversion in light of the fact that you originally protested signing your child up for gymnastics lessons.
  • If we allow consequence inversion to include things done with malicious intent, I can think of no more infuriating example than Middle East culture/laws that call for jailing or honor killings of women after they’re raped (see this article).

Interestingly, there seems to be a kind of consequence displacement opposite, and like consequence displacement, we’ve all felt it before.  Instead of being punished for others’ negative actions, we can also be punished for our own positive actions.  While I can think of some more practical examples, I like this theoretical one more because it’s so extreme.

Suppose we adopt a society (kind of like what Plato is suggesting in his Ship of State metaphor from Republic) in which the most enlightened philosopher is forced to become our leader with absolute power.  Since the philosopher is so enlightened, they will not be corrupted by power, and since they have so much wisdom, they’ll make all the right decisions.  This is a great deal for society, but unfortunately, the philosopher is probably the last person in the entire society who wants to have that power:  anyone who is remotely enlightened will not want to get involved in politics, right?  Maybe another psychology term here would be appropriate.  I seem to vaguely recall hearing phrases before such as “he’s a victim of his own greatness.”  Perhaps greatness victimhood is the best fit.

When Consequence Is Displaced To You

(Everything written from this point on is a 10/24/11 update in response to the first feedback message below from Jaak.)

When we know we are suffering the effects of consequence displacement, offering one generic course of action that covers all scenarios is impossible.  I’m not a trained psychologist, but I can offer some thoughtful points that might be a good starting point for analyzing our own situations.

First of all, I am assuming here that we are not talking about designed consequence displacement such as welfare and insurance.  I am also assuming we’re not talking about consequence displacement on massive scales such as health care costs and housing crises.  What is more interesting in this section of the article is consequence displacement on the personal level, such as with the gymnastics lessons or lost tool examples.

In all cases, we logically have three options:  1) accept/embrace the consequences, 2) confront the person calmly and objectively – point out the displacement and that you’d appreciate if it could stop, or 3) attempt to re-displace the consequences back onto the person whose action or inaction resulted in the consequences.

Factors to consider with regard to the first option (accepting/embracing the consequences):

  1. How much control does the perpetrator have over the continued displacement of consequences?  For example, if your spouse’s careless action resulted in getting hit by a car and you have to take care of them for six months while they recover, acceptance of the consequences is the only reasonable option.
  2. How severe are the consequences?  If they’re miniscule, acceptance is probably the best option.  (Keep in mind that if you still feel resentment or bitterness over the consequences, then by definition, you have not accepted them).  For miniscule consequences, the conflict that arises from the second and third options above might not be worth the benefit of getting the consequences to stop.  It may come across as petty, or worse, hypocritical, since it is almost impossible for us to avoid being at least tiny perpetrators of consequence displacement once in a while.
  3. Are you on “equal” footing with the person?  If this person writes out your paycheck each week or assigns you a grade in a class, you might be more limited to this option since confronting or redisplacing can be risky.
  4. Do you think that accepting these displaced consequences will lead to additional forms of consequence displacement? This relates heavily to my Environmental Normalization article: will the person start taking your acceptance of the consequence displacement for granted, to the point where they begin to infringe on you in greater and greater ways over time? I believe that some people are more naturally prone to the “bad” kind of environmental normalization than others – some people’s thankfulness for new things lasts very little time before they’re already looking for other reasons why they are unhappy. This has to do with how positive their state of mind tends to be.
  5. How devoted and pure is your love for this person?  It is possible to feel such a deep fondness for someone else that you’re able and willing to endure whatever is necessary to keep the relationship as smooth as possible.  Almost everything has a bell curve to it, and “intensity of love for other people” would be no exception. If this weren’t true, then we’d be madly and uncontrollably in love with every last person we’ve ever met. (Or we’d hate them all equally, or somewhere between equally.)

In the case of this last option (extremely devoted love), we might even choose to “go public” with our acceptance and happily point out to the person that we gladly accept the displacement as a part of our love for them.  Ironically, this may often be the most effective strategy for getting people to stop.  But this is very difficult to do without the heart that compels it (and without the compelled heart, this also involves great risk since it may lead to environmental normalization of your decision; with a naturally compelled heart, it doesn’t matter what they do).  Still, this can be done without the naturally compelled heart.  We’ve probably all heard that sometimes actions must precede feelings, and great things can result from this.  One could still also move on to confrontation or redisplacement after a few months, if it appears the person’s behavior is not changing.

Option #2 (confrontation) relies heavily on very open communication between two people.  It’s also critical, before confronting, that you know that you are not guilty of consequence displacement of equal or greater proportion.  For example, be careful about confronting someone for leaving dirty dishes on the coffee table if they’re the ones always taking care of a pet that you bought yourself years ago.  This takes a lot of careful and obsessive self-reflection, perhaps over the course of several weeks.

If you’ve determined confrontation to be justified, in an ideal world, everyone would be able to behave like Spock from Star Trek and embrace the pure logic of the situation.  “Fascinating – your logic is impeccable.  Thank you for pointing out my consequence displacement.  I’ll stop.”  But the true reality is that this response almost never happens, even when you approach it with delicate care.  A common initial response is to try to invert the victimhood with passive aggressivism:  “Oh, well I’m so sorry to be such a burrrrrden in your life.”  This sarcastic response basically says, “You made me feel uncomfortable, and it doesn’t matter to me if I deserve to feel uncomfortable or not.  How dare you.”  It would help greatly if you point out your own perpetrating examples of consequence displacement to them which you have since corrected with your own self-reflection, or other strategies of humility to show the person that making them feel uncomfortable is not your objective.

And obviously, if the person you’re confronting has already confronted you about similar things in the past, then this is a no-brainer.  They have no right to get upset with your attempt to do the same, or they become an instant hypocrite, expecting you to live up to higher standards than the standards they set for themselves.  Still, be tactful!

If one is considering this third option (redisplacement of consequences), it is assumed that the two options above were already considered but not possible for whatever reasons.  It is important to note that even if a consequence redisplacement strategy does not change any behavior, it still may be an appealing option since it can quickly calm resentment/bitterness you feel about being forced to accept displaced consequences.  Consequence redisplacement can be about changing others’ behavior that unfairly affects you, or it can be about increasing your own ability to cope with it.

  1. How far out of your way must you go to redisplace those actions onto the perpetrator, and will your actions come across as malevolent or manipulative?  In the case of lost tools, putting them on your spouse’s bed pillow is a terrible solution.  While it surely does shift consequences back to them, it escalates the situation to the point where you are now a manipulator at best and malevolent at worst (remember, the original instance of consequence displacement does not involve malicious intent).  A much better example of this would be simply buying new tools next time you’re at the store to keep in your own private location since you grew tired of not having tools handy when you need them.  Your spouse may eventually come to terms with either finding them or buying new ones, or maybe they won’t.  In either case, it no longer matters:  you took action to make the location of the communal tools irrelevant to your daily functioning, and you have neutralized a source of negativity in your marriage.  Whether it results in changed behavior or not, this is not manipulation since all you are doing is preventing consequences from displacing to you.
  2. Does the re-displacement affect only the perpetrator, or are others affected?  For example, if you’re tired of taking care of the pet your spouse bought without your consent, letting the animal go hungry is not an option.  You don’t want to bring innocent bystanders into the picture.
  3. If your goal is to change behavior (it may not be – see first point above and the introductory note above all of these points), will this strategy actually succeed?  For example, if junk is left out on the lawn for weeks, leaving the junk there will cause the lawn underneath to brown or die.  Do those leaving the junk there actually care about the dying lawn as much as you do?  If they don’t, then your inaction of not cleaning up the junk will not accomplish anything but allowing the lawn to die.

I don’t generally recommend this option unless the answers to these questions are extremely favorable.  Having said that, I do believe that there are some times when this is the most appropriate course of action.  Sometimes the person you’re dealing with does not respond to criticism well, and maybe you know that you will never be able to fully accept/embrace the displacement without resentment and bitterness building up (which can escalate to more tension in a relationship).

Most of all, if one takes this path, it must be with the clear understanding that no part of it is done in malice:  it has to be in the interest of getting rid of obstacles that are preventing you and the other person from drawing closer (or staying in harmony).

(c) 2011 Read Twedt (originally published on Cerebroom)

  1. In the case of the gymnastics example, signing the child up for gymnastics had questionable value.


  1. Hi,

    The article is very interesting, I like your language it is rich and full of colourful examples and phrases. Also, the consequence displacement problem is very common. And everybody has felt it while being consciously aware or not. You pay attention to it and made me think over some situations in my life where I continuously suffer from just similar issues you write about. So thank you very much.

    Also, it would be very interesting to hear solutions that you offer. What kind of attitude should one have and when is it better to react or not or how to deal with persons who often cause the consequence displacement.

    Best wishes,
    Jaak Sikk

      • Chad on October 24, 2011 at 12:59 pm
      • Reply

      Hi Jaak, thanks very much for such a thoughtful response. I updated the article (see last heading above), and I hope my thoughts make sense. I see you run a very thoughtful blog yourself – I am going to link to it in my links section.

  2. Hi Chad,

    Thank you for your thorough response. I read the text and I think you touched most of the important aspects. So it was interesting to read and again very easily adaptable to real life.

    As you said, the human intellect is far from perfection and is often conquered by emotions – fear, anger, stubbornness, pride and so on. What sometimes helps by my experience is coalition. As human beings tend to be herd-oriented, if for example three persons out of four mark, that the consequence displacement is inappropriate, the one person could change his/her mind and behaviour. But still has to swallow some pride and will be depressed a bit. So solution through caring and harmony, as you also mentioned, can even be better.


    P.S. You gave me the idea, to create a blogroll on my website and I added your blog to the list.

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