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Anti-Pattern: Gratuitous Push Down



This is the first of a planned series of “Anti-Patterns.” These are things to avoid. “Anti-Patterns” is admittedly a kind of odd name. Anyway, I simply mean that while the Patterns are something to be used in many cases to enhance collaboration and cooperation, these Anti-Patterns should never be used. While I think the focus of improving teamwork and collaboration should be on using the Patterns; I do think it is worth pointing out some of the Anti-Patterns to avoid. While forcing the behavior you want on others may result in coercion or obedience, they are antithetical to real teamwork or cooperation. 

Of course, some people feel that coercion and obedience are enough. There are at least two major issues with trying to control a world through coercion and obedience. 

First, no-one is that smart. No one person or even small group can know enough to make the best choices. The inevitable result of top-down control with autocratic powers with no checks and balances is that the group insulates itself from what is really happening. No-one wants to tell the King that they have no clothes. In the Anti-Pattern world which values “obedience,” the messenger will be shot unless the news is quite excellent indeed. As a result, every dictatorship spirals more and more out of touch with reality as time goes on. In the middle ages, knowledge and situations often changed slowly so an Empire as vast as that of the Romans might last hundreds of years. In the middle of the 20th century, a dictatorship might last a decade before it makes decisions on completely out-of-date information about what works. Now, it will be even less. A dictatorship can still take more time to completely disintegrate into chaos, foreign invasion, or anarchy; particularly, if it starts with a lot of resources already in place. But eventually, when no money is spent on public education or basic research; when people are appointed and promoted on the basis of how they were born or who they know rather than their abilities and experience, people who succeed in such organizations are the ones who are most capable of lies and deceit. There is little time and not motivation left over for learning what is really going on. Eventually, dictatorships fail, and they will do so even more quickly if they begin with basically flawed doctrines that are already “out of date” when the administration begins. 


The second fundamental flaw with authoritarian dictatorships that demand obedience is that people will never be motivated to do their best and in many cases, behind the back of the dictator, where they can’t be seen, they will do actual damage and sabotage. The more the dictator tries to “crack down” and make sure everyone is “pulling their weight,” the more insidious becomes the sabotage. 

The third fundamental problem with authoritarianism coercion, as opposed to cooperative democracy, is that administering cruelty and mediocrity necessarily dehumanizes the “successful” people in a dictatorship. They become nastier and nastier people. It’s inevitable. And they will become less and less capable of giving and receiving love, not only from strangers, but even from their own family.  

Author, reviewer and revision dates: 

Created by John C. Thomas in June, 2018 

Related Patterns: Anti-Pattern: Power Trumps Good.


In dictatorships of any size, people at the top have absolute power. In order to rationalize the inhuman behavior toward others that they exhibit, they rationalize that everyone is like them (mean and egocentric); the dictator believes they are just better at it. In other words, they live in a world limited by their own concepts to one composed only of zero-sum games. Whatever one person loses, they gain and vice versa. They do mean things to others, not only to gain some real benefit, but just because they can. Such acts are meant to demean, dispirit, harm, enslave or kill others. Such acts are antithetical to actual teamwork and collaboration. And, let’s not forget that they are also unethical. 


I believe that every person has some mixture of behaving so as to maximize their own interests and maximizing for the “greater good.” Normally, as people mature, they begin to gain confidence in themselves and their ability to deal with the world including dealing with other people. Humans are intrinsically very social animals. In societies, there develops a basic sense of trust in others. Of course, in every society, that trust is sometimes betrayed. But most people have enough confidence in themselves and in the society that they live in so as to believe that when trust is betrayed, they can recover. In a few cases, people have so little confidence in themselves and/or have such bad experiences with trusting others that they will do anything to avoid cooperation. Instead, they want power. They want to dictate the terms of every situation. If someone trusts them, they will simply exploit that trust. They don’t view this as “wrong” or “unethical” because they don’t really believe in ethics. They believe everyone is out to get whatever they can for themselves, regardless of the cost to others. All the social “niceties” are basically viewed as a scam to “trick people” into trusting so that you can scam them better. 

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Often this type of psychopathic personality will also have poor impulse control and run afoul of the law on multiple occasions. They cause a lot of pain and suffering to the victims of their crimes, and some to everyone they come in contact with. Generally, they become incarcerated early and their influence on the larger society is minimal. Sometimes, however, they are capable of “kissing up” or at least “holding their tongues” when interacting with those who have power over them. People such as their managers, bosses, and parents may not see their gratuitous push-downs. The people who work for them; or their students or children will see them for what they are. They may be clever enough to avoid adverse consequences to themselves by directing all of their gratuitous cruelty to people who have no power to push back. These are the coaches who molest children; petty dictators; bosses who publicly berate employees; Hollywood directors who insist on sexual favors and so on. 

In order to dramatize and illustrate this Anti-Pattern, I have characterized the behavior as being related to particular people and the way that they have often been brought up. In reality, of course, everyone’s behavior has multiple determinants, only one of which is their character. The situation also has a huge effect. For example, for most people, there is some tendency to use the Gratuitous Push Down occasionally. It is not uncommon for an older sibling or upper classmate to use such a ploy. 

Situations do make a difference. When people suffer no consequences of any severity, they are much more likely to employ this Anti-Pattern. When people are removed from the consequences to others, it is also easier for most to use this Anti-Pattern. Most people would not, for example, walk over to a troop of Girl Scouts selling cookies and scream at them to go away and never come back. The would-be miscreant would be embarrassed to act like this in public. They might, however, very well vote for an ordinance to make selling Girl Scout cookies illegal even though there were no real consequences for the person casting the vote. That’s what makes it “gratuitous.” They are denying someone else the achievement of that someone else even though it doesn’t really cost the other person anything. 

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When people have no desire for “true” cooperation but instead view each transaction as an opportunity to gain for themselves at the expense of others, this tends to decrease social capital within the society. Such people will often show their true colors by using the Anti-Pattern: Gratuitous Push Down. The true psychopath feels immediate pleasure in doing this, but also feels that they will gain more later because the person that they have demeaned, assaulted, insulted, stolen from, raped, etc. will have less power in the future as a consequence of their act (and in their minds, less power for others automatically means more power for them). 

Such mean-spirited behavior will tend to destroy social capital in a society generally, but it will also have much more specific and localized effects. For one thing, eventually everyone the psychopath comes in contact with will realize that such a person, whatever they say, is in it for their own gain and has no honor; their word means nothing. Because people come to trust the psychopath less and less, the psychopath sees this as vindication for their stance of treating everything as a zero-sum game. In reality, it is the major cause. Having never experienced unconditional love or even a win/win solution, they forever fail to see their own role in creating this “micro-climate” of mistrust around them. What they experience becomes increasingly confrontational until it destroys them and many nearby. 

Any kind of gratuitous push-down tends to send waves of mistrust and negativity throughout the environment. A person insulted or humiliated is more likely to exhibit similar behavior with others. Similarly, people who experience child abuse or sexual abuse are more likely to wreak these behaviors on others.  

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  • Normally people trust more than mistrust others.
  • Mutual trust typically leads to good outcomes for all parties. 
  • Having trust rewarded with good outcomes tends to improve the chances of future trust. 
  • People who grow up with constant demeaning and criticism will tend not to trust others.  
  • Some of these people will become true psychopaths who view others only in terms of tools to be used for one’s own gain, typically by making “agreements” and then breaking them. 
  • True psychopaths will often say or do mean things, not because there is an immediate material gain, but “just because they can.”   
  • A person who uses the Anti-Pattern: Gratuitous Push Down will tend to generate a self-fulfilling prophesy because eventually more and more people will not deem them trustworthy. 
  • People who do not trust others, but have minimal power themselves will sometimes look for a “powerful” leader to tell them what to do. In return, they expect to be able to use the Gratuitous Push Down on others who are “below” them in status due to age, race, place in a hierarchy or gender. 
  • When people making decisions suffer no real consequences regardless of result and when they are “distanced” from the bad consequences others feel, they are generally more likely to use this Anti-Pattern.   


There are (at least) four known solutions to help avoid this Anti-Pattern. 1) Watch for signs of the Gratuitous Push Down and do not promote, elect, select or choose someone who does this to be put in a position of power. 2) Make sure that anyone who uses Gratuitous Push Down is as close as possible to the impact that they are causing. 3) Insure that the perpetrator’s behavior is made public as widely as possible and do not let them get away with lying about their behavior. 4) Remove such a person from power as soon as possible. You do not want a Minister, Judge, Boss, Coach, Teacher, Lab Head, Director, etc. to use Gratuitous Push Down. Replace them with a cooperative person who cares about others.  


  1. A coach molests boys in the shower and then makes them feel too guilty and vulnerable to say anything. 

2. A Director has a choice of many actors for a particular role. Instead of simply choosing the best actor for the role, they insist on sexual favors for the one that is promised the actual role. (Of course, they could still promise the role to multiple actors, extort sexual favors and then deny the role to all of them). Again, they will tend to arrange things so that no-one can verify their behavior. And, they will say anything and do anything to lower the credibility of the person making the accusation.

 3. A research manager suggests to a new researcher that they do a particular project for their first year. The new researcher expresses some doubts to the manager but the manager insists. Then, the new researcher works on the project for a year and then presents the work to higher management. Higher management dismisses the work as being not very original and of no practical value. As soon as this is obvious, the research manager says quite forcefully, “I told you this was a bad idea that we never should have pursued!” 

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4. A kid walks across a field and deviates toward every anthill he sees and then kicks it apart. Or, a kid likes to pull the wings off insects. Or, a kid gets a slingshot and likes to kill songbirds just for the hell of it. One might question whether cruelty to animals is in the same category as cruelty to people. Regardless, the research shows this kind of cruelty to animals is correlated with being cruel to people (See references). 

Resulting Context:

When the Anti-Pattern Gratuitous Push Down is used, it immediately makes the person so pushed feel bad. But it also may have longer term effects on their behavior. It increases the chances that they themselves us the Gratuitous Push Down. But there are additional possibilities, almost all of them negative. The person may try to avoid the situation. The boy in example 1 may quit wrestling to avoid the coach. The actor in example 2 may give up on their Hollywood dreams. The researcher in example 3 may go work for another company. In other cases, the person may secretly vow to get more power for themselves so that they can be the one doing mean and humiliating things to others. The researcher may decide, for instance, that politics is more important than science, fake results, document assignments, kiss up, and otherwise maneuver themselves into a position of power. Once they are head of the lab 15 years later, they might finagle things until their first year research manager is fired in the most humiliating way that they can manage. 


Regardless of precisely how an individual reacts, the use of Gratuitous Push Down poisons the organization in which it occurs. Whether it is a wrestling team, a movie cast, a research organization or an entire nation, when there are gratuitous cruelties going around, people’s attention is diverted from the actual tasks at hand. Wrestlers are not focused on wrestling. Actors are not focused on the quality of their performance. Researchers are not focused on doing the best possible research. There is this other vector of motivation: petty power struggles. 

Of course, the negative effects above are the extrinsic and instrumental aspects of gratuitous cruelty. There is also an intrinsic and experiential aspect of gratuitous cruelty. It denigrates and devalues human experience for both the person who performs cruelly and the person on whom it is performed. 






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