Social undermining is behavior that is directed towards a particular person that uses expression of negative emotions or negatively evaluates the person as way to prevent that person from achieving his or her goals. The behavior directed towards the person can display negative affect such as anger or dislike. The negative evaluation of the person may involve criticizing his or her attributes, actions, and even efforts. Social undermining is seen in relationships between family members, friends, personal relationships and co-workers. Social undermining can affect a person's mental health, including an increase in depressive symptoms. This behavior is only considered social undermining if the person's perceived action is intended to hinder their target. When social undermining is seen in the work environment the behavior is used to hinder the co-worker's ability to establish and maintain a positive interpersonal relationship, success and a good reputation. An example of how an employee can use social undermining in the work environment is seen as behaviors that are used to delay the work of co-workers to make them look bad or slow them down, competition with co-workers to gain status and recognition and giving co-workers incorrect or even misleading information about a particular job.
In the workplace
According to Duffy, Ganster, and Pagon, 2002, the definition of social undermining in a workplace is behavior intended to hinder over time and not able to establish or maintain positive interpersonal relationships. Social undermining has been very effective in the workplace. Various aspects of social undermining have affected the workplace and specific races. In workplaces, social undermining has connection with social interaction. Research has shown if a person has a supportive environment in their work setting, they are more likely to have more satisfied life. Research has shown that social undermining exists in a separate and distinct continuum when looking at positive workplace behavior (e.g. social support).
Social undermining can arise through interactions with co-workers and supervisors; these interactions have an effect on the workers that are being undermined and can affect their work performance. Vinokur found that those who alleged to have social undermining in the workplace reported to have lesser mental health and personal well-being. The results of this study show that undermining has a significant role in worker-supervisor and co-worker relationship and that it leads to various different outcomes such as feelings of irritability, anxiety, depersonalization, and depression. This shows that social undermining would affect a person’s work ethics and well being; when a person does not have a positive outlook on their workspace they become miserable.
Various different empirical studies have found that undermining has three specific factors that develop counterfactual thoughts. For example: “what would my life be like if I were not the target of undermining?” These studies' findings indicate that “this rift plays a role in role determining the magnitude of the employee’s reaction to the event by making the deprived state more salient;. Behaviors of social undermining can affect a person and his or her perceptions. The study conducted by Gant, Nagda, Bradson, Jayaratne, Chess, and Singh addressed African American workers' perceptions of co-workers and supervisors. The research collected by Duffy, Ganster, Shaw, Johnson, and Pagon addressed the fairness theory introduced by Folger and Cropanzano 1998. This theory consists of various perspectives. The fairness theory suggests that when individuals face negative situations (such as being undermined by coworkers or supervision) they make cognitive comparisons known as counterfactual thoughts; i.e., they compare what actually happened to what might have been. The results show that social undermining is closely related to attitudes and behavior regarding one person being or feeling “singled out”.
While social undermining can affect a person's behavior and attitude on their job, it can also bring about envy. Envy can have a positive or negative effect: positive effects include increased performance or attempts at self-improvement. However envy can have some very harmful effects, including aggression or crime. It can lead to belittling, gossip, withholding information, and giving someone the silent treatment.
Abusive supervision can arise in different areas such as in the household, at school, and at a workplace. “Abusive supervision has been investigated as an antecedent to negative subordinate workplace outcome” ; "Workplace violence has combination of situational and personal factors” (e.g., Barling, 1996). The study that was conducted looked at the link between abusive supervision and different workplace events. Social undermining can arise from abusive supervision, such as when a supervisor uses negative actions and it leads to “flow downhill,”; a supervisor is perceived as abusive.
Research has shown that “abusive supervision is a subjective assessment made by subordinates regarding their supervisors”  behavior towards them over a period of time. For example abusive supervision includes a “boss demeaning, belittling, or invading privacy of the subordinate 
Hostile attribution bias is an extra punitive mentality where individuals tend to project blame on others. Researchers wanted to see how hostile attribution bias can moderate the relationship between perceptions of psychological contract violation and subordinates’ perceptions of abusive supervision. Undermining does arise with abusive supervision, which affects families and aggression; they believe that there is a stronger positive relationship between experiences of psychological contract violation and subordinates’ reports of abuse. It suggests that when someone has a negative work environment, it will affect their emotional training ground where this would result in negative home encounters. The findings from this study show that abused subordinates' family members reported a higher incidence of undermining in their home. When this occurs, complications arise at both home and work. Workplace abuse may be spawning negative interpersonal relations in the home, which may contribution to a downward spiral of relationships in both spheres.
When a subordinate is being abused, it can lead to negative affect towards their family where the subordinate starts undermining their family members. The undermining can arise from displaced aggression which is “redirection of a [person’s] harm doing behavior from a primary to a secondary target” (Tedeschi & Norman, 1985, p. 30). Family undermining arises from a negative work environment: when someone above you puts you down, one starts to think that one should be put down by one's family members.
Bottom line is defined as profits or losses of a business. Greenbaum and colleagues found that some employees tend to focus on a bottom-line outcome, which may be related to their tendency to engage in social undermining behavior. Employees with a bottom line mentality (BLM) tend to focus on only the bottom line, and to neglect other outcomes of their actions, including interpersonal consequences. Research has found that a bottom-line mentality can cause a problem, especially if the employer uses BLM as an objective for them to strive for. If someone is hurt by their actions it is not a priority for those with a BLM.
Employees that have a BLM may learn these actions from their supervisors. BLMs can cause rivalries within the organization since the employee may feel as if the organization should have a winner or loser when it comes to completing work. Employees with this approach think of their work as a game where the winner takes all instead of working with other employees to make sure everyone is contributing to the work that needs to be completed. The competitiveness that is created between the coworkers is to attain bottom-line outcomes. When the employees are trying to attain bottom-line outcomes, with this winner-take-all mentality, they begin to want their co-workers to fail as that consequently means, to them, they, the undermining employee, must be succeeding. The supervisor's BLM causes employee social undermining. This happens because the employees may role-model after the adopted supervisor's BLM. Employee personality also plays a role in the relationship between BLM and undermining. Employees that have confidence in their work ability rely on their work ethic while employees who are low in confidence are more likely to engage in social undermining behavior to make themselves look better when it comes to the bottom line of success.
Research suggests that whether or not someone engages in social support or social undermining depends upon their own goals. Those with compassionate goals are more likely to be supportive of close others, while those who have more selfish motives believe that people should take care of themselves. When people have goals to preserve their own self-image this can undermine their compassionate goals and make them less supportive.
Research has shown that social undermining can have an effect on a person's health. It has been shown that social undermining can cause depressive symptoms. Depending on the relationship between a patient and their loved one, the loved one can support or undermine the patient and can even do both within the same interaction which can increase the depressive symptoms. Creating more social support can improve treatment outcomes of a patient depending on the type of stress level the person is enduring..
Research conducted by Joseph, Myers, Schettino, Olmos, Bingham-Mira, Messer and Poland found that when participants are exposed to high levels of social undermining and even high levels of social support it can help improve the participants course of treatment. The high levels of social support and social undermining showed that it could reduce and also cause remission of the participant’s symptoms. The study also found that when African American participants who had low levels of social undermining are able to fared more than the Caucasians participants to reduce their symptoms. When both groups of participants were given high levels of social undermining the African American participants had fewer achievements when their symptoms were reduced. While the Caucasians participants had reversal effects of their symptoms being reduced.
In another study conducted by Benyamini, Medalion and Garfinkel (2007) found that having support from a spouse while having a serious illness can help the person to cope with their illness. Benyamini, Medalion and Garfinkel (2007) study used heart patients who already had heart disease. The intentions of the study was to find if positive and negative of interactions that are between the patients who have heart disease and their spouse can cause spouse support and spouse undermining. When one of the partners has a serious illness this can cause the couple to make necessary adjustment when it comes to their relationship.
The researchers found that when the patient considered their illness as being negative (e.g., especially painful or likely to be chronic) they tended to want more support from the spouse and may even feel as if their spouse was not providing sufficient support. This can cause the patient to believe that they are experiencing social undermining. Other times, the partner's actions can cause the patient to feel as if the spouse is acting very critical towards them. This can turn into social undermining, which can cause the spouse to think that the patient is not taking their own condition seriously. When the spouse shows that illness is serious it can sometimes cause the spouse to become over protective of the patient. This can also cause the spouse to be critical of their partner behavior and the partner can provide less support for the patient. The results of the study found that when a spouse had negative views of the illness, they engaged in both more support and more undermining.
Research conducted by Horwitz et al. (1998) found that spouse undermining was almost twice as large as the effect for support. For example a spouse that shows behaviors of withdrawal, avoidance and being overly critical can cause psychological distress in a relationship. This in turn causes stress that increases the depressive symptoms on individuals that have endure high levels of social undermining. This can happen because the support that a person can get from their spouse compared to a close friend since a spouse is more exclusive and generally involves more frequent and emotionally intense interactions (Cutrone 1996; Vinokur & Vinokur & Vinokur- Kaplan, 1990) and depending on their relationship that can influence the social support or even the social undermining that affect the relationship.
Cranford found that spouse undermining and not spouse support can increase depressive symptoms within that relationship. Social undermining has been found to be a stronger indicator for psychological adaption than social support. When there is social undermining in a relationship it can have fatal effects on the spouse's ability to deal with other stressors. It can also lead to an increase of wishful thinking, poor psychological adjustment, maladaptive coping behaviors, and even decrease adaptive coping behaviors. This can give more attention to coping resources and it takes away from other stressors which causes the couple to have fewer chances resolving their problems. If the couple cannot resolve their problems it can cause marital conflict. Social undermining within the relationship can cause negative effects on the spouse physical health and can make the spouse vulnerable to different stressors. This can also lead to depressive symptoms that can lessen the spouse self-esteem.
Nutrition and exercise
Research has found that 60% of adults in America are overweight or obese. There are different factors that cause people in America to become overweight, including negative or positive eating behavior, such as indulging in eating dessert when they should not. Social undermining can influence people’s healthy behaviors.
Research has also shown that partners that offer social support can also offer social undermining. An example of this is when family members try to undermine parenting styles in order to raise healthy children. When social undermining is used in different situations, research has shown that it can cause poor mental health. Another study found that participants that endure social undermining when it comes to their eating and exercise behavior, the participants try to ignore the pressure the undermining did affect their exercise decisions more than eating decisions.
Market, Stanforth, and Garcia found that social undermining used by family members, friends and coworkers can affect daily activities. Social undermining can affect exercise routines when their exercise routines can conflict with seeing friends or even coworkers. Friends and coworkers can influence the person to skip their exercise, even when a spouse is concerned about their well being. The study also showed that social undermining can affect men and women differently. Men tend to feel as if they can overcome social undermining because they were still able to make a healthy eating decision. Women have stated that they tend to make bad eating decision when they are eating with other people such as their friends. Social undermining pressures can cause serious challenges when a person is trying to maintain healthy eating and trying to stay active. The study found that people that engage in undermining behavior tend to feel guilty about their own unhealthy behavior and may feel jealousy of the fact that someone else is maintaining their healthy behavior when they cannot achieve the same behavior. The study also suggests when a person is satisfied with their weight it can help the person resist against social undermining. By being satisfied with your own weight can reduce the likely hood of social undermining in social situations when having dinner with friends. So when a person is not satisfied with their weight receive more social undermining pressures from the people around them.
Social undermining and social support can have opposite effects on a person that can be negative or positive depending on the person or even the relationship. Being in a close relationship can provide a person both social undermining and social support. Example of these relationships can be an abusive relationship that offers low support and high undermining. A typical healthy close relationship has high support and low undermining. In a relationship between an adolescent and a parent, their relationship can offer high levels of support and even undermining. Depending on the relationship, patterns can change over time based on the characteristics and the situation of the relationship. Whether a relationship is positive or negative can have devastating effects.
Social support can give a person coping resources that can reduce threat in a stressful situation. In a relationship if a partner has lower status or even lower power social undermining becomes more of threat for the relationship. Research concludes that social undermining has a greater impact on a person mental health than social support.
Vinokur and van Ryn used unemployed participants and some of the participants were reemployed to look at the impact that social support and social undermining can have on a person’s mental health during economic hardships. Vinokur and van Ryn the results suggest that although the support and undermining are inversely and strongly correlated they do not form the same factor but constitute empirically distinct constructs. The study looked at the effect of financial strain, social support, and undermining on poor mental health the results found that it was not statistically significant. Social support and social undermining did have significant but the opposite effect on poor mental health. Vinokur and Ryn(1993) found that social support and undermining were shown in longitudinal design even when prior levels of mental health and the contribution of another critical stressful factor. Social support and undermining had a dynamic pattern influence on mental health.
The results showed that social support has weak positive effect while social undermining has more volatile effects. Even though the study found that a high level of social undermining has significant effects on mental health when the high levels are reduced there is an improvement in the person mental health over a period of time. In the study participants that received high levels of social undermining even after they return to their normal interactions the participant still returns to high level of undermining that affects the person mental health. These findings were found in relationships for men and women that were either unemployed or reemployed.
Another example of how social undermining can affect a person’s relationship is shown by a study conducted by McCaskill and Lakey which examined social support and social undermining when it came to adolescents and family relationships. Social support and social undermining can reflect different characteristics in the environment that can influence a person's mental health. The study examined how adolescents reported their family support and undermining which reflected shared social reality (that is, all members of the family agree that support or undermining is occurring) and idiosyncratic perception (some family members believe that support or undermining has occurred, but others do not). The results of the study found that girls tend to report higher family stress and negative affect than boys. McCaskill and Lakey (2002) found that adolescents with previous outpatient treatment experience reported both lower family support and higher family stress.
Researchers found that in adolescent self-reports, social undermining was related to negative affect and perceived support was more related to positive affect. The study found that adolescents' idiosyncratic perceptions of family support did predict positive emotion, but shared perceptions of support did not. For social undermining, adolescents' idiosyncratic perceptions, the idiosyncratic perceptions of the other family members as well as shared social reality that was among family members did predict negative emotion. The study suggest that social support is not based on a shared reality, while social undermining is.
Due to the differences in the scope of the effects of social undermining and social support, many researchers have concluded that they are separate constructs, rather than two ends of a continuum
Emotional and behavioral reactions
Research has found that depending on how the victim handles social undermining, it can have damaging effects when it comes to increased counterproductive behaviors, reciprocated social undermining, and decreased job satisfaction These negative outcomes can cause the person to have depression, a decreased self-esteem and even psychosomatic symptoms.
In a study of victims' perceptions of undermining they had experienced, Crossley found that when an offense was severe, the victim was more likely to believe that the offender committed the action with malicious intent or due to personal greed. Generally, victim’s perceptions of the offenders intentions relate to the whether the victim responds to the undermining in a negative fashion with feelings of anger and a desire for revenge, or in a positive fashion with a desire to reconcile with the offender.
- Demoralization (warfare)
- Divide and rule
- Industrial and organizational psychology
- Mind games
- Negativity effect
- Occupational health psychology
- Passive-aggressive behavior
- Personal boundaries
- Setting up to fail
- Workplace aggression
- Workplace incivility
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- Benyamini, Y., Medalion, B., & Garfinkel, D. (2007). Patient and spouse perceptions of the patient's heart disease and their associations with received and provided social support and undermining. Psychology & Health, 22(7), 765-785.
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- Academic articles
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- Benyamini, Yael; Medalion, Benjamin; Garfinkel, Doron (2007). "Patient and spouse perceptions of the patient's heart disease and their associations with received and provided social support and undermining". Psychology & Health 22 (7): 765–85. doi:10.1080/14768320601070639.
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- McCaskill, J. W.; Lakey, B. (2000). "Perceived Support, Social Undermining, and Emotion: Idiosyncratic and Shared Perspectives of Adolescents and their Families". Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 26 (7): 820–32. doi:10.1177/0146167200269007.
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- Pettit, Nathan C. (2010). "Get Off My Back! The Impact of Status Distance and Status Change on Social Undermining". IACM 23rd Annual Conference Paper. SSRN 1612873.
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- Stanforth, Dixie; Mackert, Michael (2009). "Social Undermining of Healthy Eating and Exercise Behaviors". ACsm's Health & Fitness Journal 13 (3): 14–9. doi:10.1249/FIT.0b013e3181a1b79a.
- Vinokur, Amiram D.; Van Ryn, Michelle (1993). "Social support and undermining in close relationships: Their independent effects on the mental health of unemployed persons". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 65 (2): 350–59. doi:10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.1680.