I'm looking for an explanation for why people will try to make themselves feel better by treating others poorly.

For example, imagine a group of girls are sitting in a cafe. Within that group are two girls in particular, Sally and Anne. Sally is beautiful, intelligent, and popular. Sally knows she's blessed, but she doesn't like to highlight that fact. She shies from attention and deflects most compliments. Anne on the other hand, is normal, at least she thinks of herself as normal. Anne doesn't often receive compliments like Sally does. As the group of girls sit in the cafe sipping latte's and chatting, the conversation makes its way to Sally's recent success at school. Sally scored top of the class in the last bout of exams. This angers Anne, she herself didn't do so well on her exams. She feels ashamed. Suddenly she blurts "Oh Sally its great that you did well on your exams, I'm surprised you had so much time to study, I thought you'd be too busy with Jack?". Jack was Sally's fiance, they recently split up when Sally caught Jack with another woman. At this, Sally cowers like a wounded animal. She quickly mumbles something and excuses herself from the table. The conversation falls flat. Everyone at the table knew what happened between Sally and Jack. The other girls stare awkwardly at their mugs, shooting furtive looks at Anne. Anne knows what she did was wrong, evil even. But hurting Sally felt good, real good.

To rephrase the question in the context of the scene: Is there a name for Anne's behaviour at the cafe?

I'm not just looking for a word that would describe Anne's behaviour. Depending on how you interpret the story, Anne's behaviour can be described with many words (bullying, jealousy, spitefulness etc.). What I'm looking for is an explanation of Anne's behaviour in terms of psychoanalytic theory.

  • $\begingroup$ Sounds like bullying to me. $\endgroup$
    – theMayer
    Oct 14, 2014 at 22:34

4 Answers 4

What I'm looking for is an explanation of Anne's behaviour in terms of
psychoanalytic theory.

In Freudian psychology this is called Displacement:

... an unconscious defense mechanism whereby the mind substitutes either a new aim or a new object for goals felt in their original form to be dangerous or unacceptable.

For example:

... a college student may snap at his or her roommate when upset about an exam grade.

Note that psychoanalytic theory is outdated, and for the most part considered pseudoscience. The concept of defence mechanisms in general has largely been superseded by cognitive dissonance theory.

Not related, but you may also be interested in Schadenfreude.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Thanks for the tip Arnon. But,from what I understand, displacement is where a person takes out their frustrations on those that are less threatening. In the story Anne could've acted out on any of the girls at the table - but she chose Sally. Because of Sally's popularity, you could argue that she was the most threatening girl at the table. Now, if Anne went home and behaved poorly with her younger sister, that I would agree to call displacement. $\endgroup$
    – ttmarek
    Nov 10, 2014 at 3:10
  • $\begingroup$ Not exactly. The key to all Freudian defence mechanisms is ego-protection - ie, displacement is where a person takes out their frustration on something or someone that is less threatening to their ego. In Anne's case, the greatest threat comes from acknowledging her own unacceptable feelings, and attacking Sally is less threatening than that. Note also that defence mechanisms are unconscious, so the idea that Anne "chose" Sally is misleading; Sally was just a handy target. $\endgroup$
    – Arnon Weinberg
    Nov 10, 2014 at 6:00

When a person feels inferior to another, then the only way they can replace that feeling of inferiority is to find a way to control that person's emotions from displacing their own. Their visible dominant emotion becomes jealously - in extreme cases this can manifest itself as anger and violence.

Some people particularly men can becomes jealous of a woman's beauty and see rape as a punishment rather than a pleasure. This in their mind justifies the rape. They see the rape as a release from the torment they have had to endure by not feeling equal to the attractiveness in the exchange of emotions with others

Any method of dealing with rapists will only succeed if the feeling of low emotional worth is dealt with.

They are jealous of the lack of control of the situation they are in, and that the other person is able to use that control to direct interaction and actions.

Example of free-exchange. I make a joke that Obama'a revenge on America for not awarding him President of all Time Award is Donald Trump. You laugh. We have entered into free exchange of emotion. Nothing is asked of each other other than free-exchange. I gave you my opinion in the form of a joke and you rewarded me with your laughter.

After the exchange we both feel equal to each other and have the 'feel good' emotion.

We can then carry on our interaction on equal terms.

Those who wish to hurt need to use their emotions in the form of power in order to that. The visible display of the success of that change of emotional superiority is for that person to see the hurt they have casued with their power.

Trolls are a good example.Some are highly organised groups of people who take pleasure in exerting emotional control over others with verbal abuse.

The simplest way to combat this is to make sure you publicly display them and their comments and of course use the law to prosecute them.

Your question is a topical one. As from it I have explained how interaction is formed by the free exchange of emotion and how that free exchange can becomes in teh ownership of one person by hurting the other.

Of course in a face to face conversation you can identify the speaker - it is a question to ask should the Internet do the same?

  • $\begingroup$ This answer seems to be primarily opinion based, which is frowned upon on CogSci.SE. Adding references to studies to support your personal impressions would greatly improve the quality of your answer. $\endgroup$
    – Seanny123
    May 29, 2016 at 19:47
  • $\begingroup$ You are incorrect. It is not an opinion it is based on my own theory.Current theory has proved to be totally inadequate to deal with the interaction matrix that the emotional pathway now has to transverse.If current theory worked then we would not have the increase in emotional turmoil that manifests itself as increase in sexual crime. $\endgroup$ May 30, 2016 at 14:36

It can be devaluation principle in narcisstic personality disorder.



Spitefulness: having or showing a desire to harm, anger, or defeat someone.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.