The Cruelty Incentive: Devaluing Others to Appear Intelligent

Have you ever come across someone who criticized your way of doing things, to make it appear that they were more competent than you? Some people feel the need to possess a higher intellectual status. To do so, they attack others. We're going to explore what lies behind this kind of behavior.
The Cruelty Incentive: Devaluing Others to Appear Intelligent
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 19 May, 2024

One inescapable fact in the world today is that many work environments are like jungles. They’re complex scenarios inhabited by the strangest of animals. While you might meet some fabulous colleagues and inspiring leaders, you’ll also find competitive and deceitful people, the occasional narcissist, and maybe even the odd incompetent individual who does their utmost to appear otherwise.

We’re going to focus on this last category, people who know they’re not as skilled as others but want to survive at all costs and even reach positions of influence. However, the fewer skills they possess the more aggressive they are. This is a defense mechanism, a rather dastardly strategy that tends to attract our attention.

Social research claims that, often, when someone engages in critical or abusive behavior, they’re seeking power or wish to appear more intelligent. Indeed, the ‘aggressive executive’ continues to inhabit many work settings. They’re like old dinosaurs that are hard to get rid of.

Those who exert verbal violence at work try to gain power over others. They’re the kinds of behaviors that shouldn’t be allowed.

angry man
Making a negative judgment about someone is a strategy to show the audience an apparent resolve and false competence.

The cruelty incentive

You may well have experienced the following kind of situation. You’re part of a work team in which you have to come up with innovative ideas and original approaches to achieve the objectives of your team/company. You make a proposal and, shortly after, someone harshly criticizes it. They then continue to reject all your ideas.

While critical perspectives can be enriching, these kinds of figures devalue you. It’s like you’re a piece of paper on the floor that they crush with their foot. They’re cruel and contemptuous. They’re trying to reinforce, in front of others, their own image as one of resolution and authority. They also want to appear competent.

It doesn’t matter how good your idea is. These figures can quash them with the strangest of arguments. They simply want to give the impression that they know more than you and that your proposals are ridiculous. The cruelty incentive defines this aggressive and devaluing behavior that one individual inflicts on another, in order to appear more brilliant.

The cruelty incentive is a phenomenon that frequently appears on social media.

Machiavellian and in search of recognition

It was Stanford University doctor, Teresa Amabile, who first coined the term cruelty incentive more than forty years ago. Thanks to her various investigations, she demonstrated that, in work settings, insecure people often try to pull others to pieces to gain intellectual status.

In fact, these individuals negatively judge anyone who shows greater skills or competencies, in order to invalidate them. They want to gain a certain reputation in the environment. Moreover, they want to be seen as charismatic. Dr. Amabile claims that, on occasions, this form of Machiavellianism gives an image of false brilliance.

These are undoubtedly extremely distorted situations. But, sadly, they continue to occur. They exemplify the director of a company who attacks an employee’s performance to reinforce their own power. It may seem like sensationalist behavior, but it has a cost, both in the long and short term.

A frequent phenomenon on social media

This phenomenon seems reminiscent of another era. Of a time when executives and managers employed authoritarian leadership. However, if there’s one ideal territory for the cruelty incentive to manifest, it’s on social media. Indeed, almost every day, on this platform, we see people who denounce, trample on, and criticize the comments and contributions of others.

As a matter of fact, whenever someone in authority in any field of knowledge publishes news or provides data, soon, a whole horde of aggressive comments appears. While we must reiterate the point that well-founded and respectful criticism is useful, these people often seek to belittle and vilify the experts in order to gain authority themselves.

We saw this behavior during the pandemic. Suddenly, users appeared on social media who appeared to know more than the scientists. In fact, it happens with every current event. Whether they’re economic events, natural catastrophes, or wars, the number of people willing to attack with their tweets continues to increase.

The cruelty incentive prevails in scenarios dominated by fixed mindsets that block their own growth.

Sometimes we are in a job that we do not like out of necessity
Whoever devalues the other just to gain power interferes with the proper functioning of a work environment.

With aggressive behavior, we all lose

The cruelty incentive lies behind the voice of the authoritarian father who educates his children with fear. They’re the kinds of people who want to exercise control and undermine the self-esteem of others to make themselves visible. Unfortunately, it tends to be taken for granted that whoever yells the most and puts more spokes in the wheels of others, achieves more success in the work environment.

However, the reality is different. As a matter of fact, this is a more dangerous behavior than the Dunning-Kruger effect (people with few skills who act as if they were experts). That’s because, in this case, these figures, in addition to acting violently, veto and hinder the growth of a company.

Creativity doesn’t flow when attacks and belittlement occur. Progress and objectives aren’t achieved when individuals go on the attack for their own private benefits. They’re the ‘bad apples’ in organizations that must be discarded.


Obstructionists, individuals who know of their low skills and seek to tear others down in order to stand out, have always been around. Their behavior is a problem in scenarios that allow or may even value it. These are fixed-mentality environments that are doomed to failure. Moreover, they’re exhausting work environments.

This kind of behavior is neither logical nor ethical. Organizations only achieve success if they favor good working climates based on respect, coexistence, innovation, and good doses of emotional intelligence.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.