Table of Contents
Introduction To Minimizing
This article will discuss the psychology of minimization, when it can be used effectively, how to minimize, and how to respond to someone who minimizes you.
What Is Minimizing?
In our context, minimization is an act that reduces an accomplishment to a less valuable state. A person can minimize themselves. An individual can minimize another person.
For example, say you just passed your final college exam with a A-. You could minimize your own accomplishment by thinking “well I always get A-‘s on tests so that wasn’t very impressive.” A friend could minimize your accomplishment by saying “well you studied for ages for that test, you better have gotten at least an A-.”
Minimizing can be called belittling, disparaging, downplaying, invalidation, trivialization, understating, or to some extent a put down.
How Is Minimizing Different From Magnification?
Magnification refers to the process where an event’s value is exaggerated. Minimization is a process where an event’s value is lessened.
Psychology Of Minimizing
We are going to focus on a specific set of minimizing instances, namely minimizing that takes place in competitive social setting. Individuals minimize others as a form of defense mechanism or as a covert aggressive maneuver.
Defense mechanisms serve to protect the person from thoughts that either shake up their world view or generally produce anxiety. Typically they are unconscious. If a person hasn’t lived up to their ideal, and a friend close to them reaches the ideal, defense mechanisms can trigger. Otherwise the person might have to make painful changes to their world view or their view of self. They might even have to deal with self guilt for having not reached the ideal themself. One way to respond is to minimize the friend’s accomplishment. If the accomplishment is less impressive, the person doesn’t have to confront their inadequacy. Minimization is a form of cognitive distortion.
While minimization is typically a tactic used to get away with a covert aggressive maneuver, it can also be used as an offensive weapon. Look at forensic psychology where interrogators use minimization tactics to downplay the seriousness of the situation the culprit finds themself in. By minimizing the person’s actions, they imply that they will be more lenient in exchange for confession. Additionally, narcissists use minimization of emotions, also called emotional invalidation against victims.
We also see a form of minimization take place in other interrogation environments like the US Army. They call this version the Pride and Ego Down method. Interrogators first attack the prisoner’s sense of self worth. In an effort to prove they are valuable or worthwhile, the person will make comments that give up valuable information. For example, the interrogator might call them incompetent. If this bothers the prisoner, they might respond “if I am so incompetent, why would they put me on the secret tank repair squad?”
What makes some minimization attempts work well or poorly? Just like insults, minimization works best when targeted at an insecurity that the individual or group already believes is there. Often minimization works best when it targets a trait the person actively attempts to display. Minimization preys on a person’s self doubt or inability to independently come to conclusions on their own. Because of this, minimization seems to work best on the psychologically ‘weak.’
When Should You Minimize Someone
Minimizing people is rarely a good long term strategy unless they are your enemy. Since part of an enemy’s will to fight back comes from their ego, reminding them that they aren’t as impressive as they think can yield a serious edge. Another use for minimization is to create an environment where the person reveals something in order to ‘prove’ their worth. The US Army used a technique called Pride And Ego Down for this. It should be mentioned that if you fail to minimize someone you lose a sense of credibility.
If the person is an acquaintance, coworker, or friend, minimizing their accomplishments will usually bring about resentment and antagonism. Creating unnecessary problems isn’t a great long or short term strategy.
There are some situations where minimizing someone’s accomplishments can help them reach a more realistic view of the world. If a person’s ego causes them to overestimate their contributions, they could feel entitled to more than they are worth. Fact based minimization can help bring a person’s ego back to earth.
There are two important elements in the process of minimizing. The first element is the target’s beliefs and values. As we discuss in the psychology of insults post, attacks are more likely to hurt if the target or society already believes the criticism. To learn more about how to spot this learn about personality theory or what people want.
The second element is the idealized group. The idealized group is the group that the target is compared to during the act of minimizing. If done correctly, any accomplishment can be minimized by simply changing something about the idealized group. For example becoming the president of your country is an impressive accomplishment. But it can be minimized by shifting the idealized group. Instead of comparing the target to average people, most of who never lead at anything significant, the group can be changed to all people who lead. Leaders of small countries seem less impressive compared to leaders of superpowers.
A note on the following techniques and examples: If you want to become skilled at minimizing, focus first on using the Question Technique to imply that an accomplishment is imperfect. Then focus on the Divert Attention Technique. These are most practically applicable with the lowest consequences for failure. If you want to know how to defend against minimization, check out the next section.
Questions: One of the more effective ways to minimize is to use a question. For example, instead of saying “your car is common,” it is better to say “how many cars like this are out on the road?” Sometimes if you leave on time for home after a day’s work your boss might say “oh that’s all?”
The Accomplished Father Technique: If you set high enough expectations, no one can live up to them regardless of what they do. For example, say the target just won class secretary. Say “why didn’t you run for president?” Another version of this trick is to imply that their behavior was expected given their resources. “Well of course you were going to get a home, everyone your age should be able to afford one.” “Wow you get really excited over nothing don’t you.” The key is to pretend that the exemplary behavior that was demonstrated is typical, common, and expected. If someone shares a profound insight explain how that is common or obvious. Finally, you can simply imply that they choose an easy goal. “Congratulations I guess, but pretty much everyone graduates, right?” “Good job but here is how you could improve.
Petty Labeling/Belittling: Minimizing through labeling works in a similar manner to shaming. Simply give the person, action, or object a pejorative label. For example you might give a man an emasculating label like princess. Additionally you could say “you did a nice little job there,” if the target finished an important project. Jokes can also function to belittle someone’s characteristics.
Nit Picking/Pride And Ego Down: An easy way to minimize someone while maintaining plausible deniability is to nit pick their actions. For example you might say “why did you surrender so quickly when you could have just escaped and crossed the river?” The key here is to imply with your questions that the person lacks some important quality like competence, loyalty, or bravery. In business settings the key is to focus more on the issues, which will always be present in any complicated project, than the successes. “You did good enough work here, but you really need to improve on this part of the task.” You can also point out the limits of their contribution or project. “That is a great app you just built but it is a really small part of what our customers really want. It doesn’t solve problem X, Y, or Z.”
Concerned Parent: The concerned parent is more about tone and body language than anything else. For example, simply ask how the person is doing with a tone and facial expression that implies that they have been struggling.
Divert Attention/Block Recognition: You can minimize people indirectly by focusing on the surrounding elements that brought about their success. Example: If an actor had a good performance and you want to minimize it, spend all your time gushing about the set, the music, the writing, and the other actors. A minimizer could also just completely pretend to forget or deny the accomplishment at all. Another example of this type of minimizing is to simply bring up something that is worse than their situation. “I know you just got fired but think of all the people who are starving in other countries right now.” When people perform ad homonym attacks it often falls under this category. “You are only saying that because you didn’t sleep.”
Exaggerate To Minimize: This is typically used to emotionally invalidate people. Play up their emotional response and comment on how it won’t solve the problem. “You aren’t going to let something like that come between us?” You can also sarcastically exaggerate the importance of some small part of their accomplishment to make it seem less impressive. For example, “you are right, that is really impressive that a rich kid managed to attend high school and graduate with their parents paying all the bills.”
Understating: Understate an accomplishment. “That’s a nice little chunk of change you made.” You can also understate by making it seem like everyone has that opinion.
Physical: Minimization can also take place through the body. By facing or looking away from the person you are having a conversation with, you make it seem like their speech is less important. Yawning and finger nail cleaning accomplish the same thing. When people speak, ask them to repeat themselves and listen with a comical expression.
One Upping: One upping is a form of minimization. When someone says they think the project will take a week, say it will take a week an a half. Another version of this happens when you guess something about someone. For example a friend might say they just got a new job. “They probably made you CEO, right?” If done in a certain way, guessing something slightly greater than the person accomplished minimizes their accomplishment.
Miscellaneous: Could have done more, could have done it faster, could have done it with less effort could have done something else, could have done something with higher quality, could have done it with fewer mistakes, could have involved the team more, could have not relied on others so much could have put in more effort, person x does that too.
How To Deal With A Minimizer
Most of the time a minimizer is trying to destroy your tower so theirs looks more impressive. Often the people who minimize unprovoked are those who are either egotistical or insecure. Your accomplishments make them feel lesser. There are two main techniques for handling minimizers. They will help you know what you should say when someone minimizes you or your feelings.
Technique 1 (Defensive)
The first technique works best if the person minimizing you doesn’t necessarily have bad intentions towards you. First, cut out all whining and explaining. Consider hiding your aspirations. Only share your successes in the presence of people who are your friends. When you do this, they will have significantly fewer opportunities to minimize you.
When they do occasionally minimize, call them out on it. Ask, “how does that comment help this situation?” If their comment has a good reason, listen. If they aren’t, ask them “are you having a rough day?” You can also predict that they will have something negative to say about your accomplishment before you say it. “I’m going to share something that finally happened the other day. I’m excited to hear how Mr. Y finds a problem with it.” If they keep minimizing, move to technique 2.
Technique 2 (Offensive)
This technique works best if the person minimizing you is doing so as a covert aggressive attack. When someone is attacking you and their attack can cause you issues, you must fight back.
The long term strategy for fighting a minimizer is to character assassinate them. You need to frame them as a whiner. By framing them as someone who always has something negative to say, you minimize their ability to harm you. If done effectively, everyone will start to think of them as the person who never says positive things. Thus the person can either keep playing into your frame or they can stop minimizing. You win either way. Each time they make a negative comment, frame it as whining. “Oh there you go again sourpuss, there’s always something wrong isn’t there?” “Whine whine whine.” Coming up with a name that implies they are a complainer also helps to brand their behavior.
The short term strategy is to make sure they know each minimization attempt will be met with a consequence. One technique that works particularly well is to ask the minimizer if they have ever accomplished something similar. Frequently they are bitter because you are outshining them. They wouldn’t be bitter if they had accomplished something better. You can either resort to minimizing them right back or bringing up something they did that embarrassed them. “Remember that time when you had a comb-over for a whole year straight?” Check out our article on how to humiliate someone.
Bonus (Technique 3)
The final technique is to simply cut the person off and minimize interactions with them. Some people are so aggressive or internally bitter that they will never stop. You can’t change them. If there is nothing to be gained by sticking around and fighting, why are you subjecting yourself to their terrible personality?