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Gaining advantage using apparent weakness or inferiority.

One-upmanship is the art or practice of successively outdoing a rival, staying one step ahead by ​proving superiority. It is straightforward competition whether playful in tone, as in friends verbally sparring, or deadly serious. Presidential candidate Donald Trump employs one-upmanship incessantly, pointing out that he is richer, more successful, and more popular than his rivals and detractors. While his tactics are debatable, their intent is clear.

The converse is in need of a parallel term, and the obvious choice is one-downmanship. This neologism has appeared sporadically in recent decades, including in a 1972 ad for an economy car, as an approach to conducting interviews in school consultations (Ingraham, 2000) and to describe faking outrage and injury in sports. These uses coalesce around the concept of gaining advantage by appearing weak, victimized, dim, or inferior. Unlike one-upmanship, it’s a tricky ploy, a surprise attack of sorts.

One-downmanship is common, though it often goes unrecognized. Elevating a job decision to avoid making it oneself (“Well, you’re the boss”) is a version of it. As a medical intern, I was often asked to draw blood from the most difficult veins because I was “the doctor”—even though the nurses had far more experience drawing blood than I did. Any argument that starts with “If you’re so smart [or experienced, skilled, etc] …” turns the superiority of one’s opponent against him or her. The Japanese martial art aikido relies on a form of one-downmanship by conceding that the attacker’s power is superior, yet ultimately and surprisingly neutralizing it. TV detective “Columbo” solved cases by feigning ignorance. Humblebragging is a new twist on one-downmanship.

Moving from these overt and often conscious examples, we enter a larger realm where one-downmanship may be partly or fully unconscious. Controlling people through one's weakness is a typical dynamic in alcoholism, where others are manipulated into codependency, and in dysfunctional families where an anxious or easily hurt person causes others to “walk on eggshells.” As I once wrote, sometimes a bull wanders into a china shop; other times the bull is minding its own business when someone builds a china shop around it.

Those who claim special entitlement by dint of physical or mental disability may be employing one-downmanship, although this highlights the trickiness of the concept: We may hurtfully “blame the victim” if we even entertain the possibility—and be unfairly manipulated if we don’t. The same holds at the larger societal level, where claims to special consideration based on one’s status as member of an ethnic minority or another historically disadvantaged group is cause for endless and heated political debate. A backlash deriding the culture of victimhood now stands in opposition to such claims.

One-downmanship presents its targets with a dilemma. Ignore or discredit overt weakness and inferiority, and one risks being a thoughtless boor, hitting a victim when he’s down. This is its paradoxical power. Just as with one-upmanship, one-downmanship is often challenged by like means, creating a rivalry between two sides taking the same stance. In this case a “race to the bottom” may occur, with each side claiming greater disadvantage, weakness, and/or victimization than the other, e.g., “My minority group is more victimized than your minority group.”

Contests either up or down are normally bounded by healthy narcissism, i.e., self-pride. That is, the heights of self-promotion (one-upmanship) as well as the depths of self-denigration (one-downmanship) are limited by the shame accompanying either extreme. Pathological narcissism—which can appear either as excessive self-pride or none at all—erases these limits, allowing shameless one-upmanship or one-downmanship to proceed to the point of absurdity.

©2016 Steven Reidbord MD. All rights reserved.