Is there a single word to describe someone who often attributes inappropriately trivial/cheap motives to another person's actions? I'm thinking along the lines of someone who puts himself briefly in that position and usually assumes the easiest/least flattering motive for other people's behavior. I know "cynical" might be of use here, but I'm wondering if there's a narrower/more specific word to describe this?

For example: Person A and person B both take a test that can be passed or failed. Person A calls person B on the phone in hope of getting the test results only person B (for an irrelevant reason) has access to. Before person B discloses the results, person A asks if the situation is bad, referring to whether they both failed. Person B claims the situation is worse, as a matter of fact, person A failed and person B passed the test (clearly assuming person A will see the situation in the same way). Person A actually thinks this is an objectively better situation and puts person B's success over the comfort of not being worse than them.

  • So where, in your scenario, is someone attributing inappropriate motives to another's actions? I thought your scenario would be along the lines of: A two-man team wins a large sum of money which is given to the team leader. The partner never gets a split and assumes the leader is being a selfish jerk when really the leader spent all the money to help his partner's son get out of a tight spot that he didn't want his father to know about.
    – Jim
    Jul 12, 2014 at 2:49
  • @Jim , that wasn't very precise of me, was it? The person with a tendency to do what was described above was person B, who assumed person A would have a negative emotional reaction to their success, while it wasn't true. There's no precise action, but I felt it had the same tone. If the example is bad, I apologize, just take the description into consideration then. You example works better actually. Jul 12, 2014 at 2:58

5 Answers 5


"Cynical" may meet your requirements. Also, one of the meanings of "ungenerous," I believe, is willing to ascribe bad motives. (Caveat: I do not have a dictionary at hand at this moment.)


In your scenario, Person B can be said to sell Person A short.

sell someone or something short

Fig. to underestimate someone or something; to fail to see the good qualities of someone or something. This is a very good restaurant. Don't sell it short. When you say that John isn't interested in music, you're selling him short. Did you know he plays the violin quite well?


  • Thank you for the answer, I think that's a good description of what Person B is actually doing. I would like if I could find a word that would describe person B as someone who has a tendency to sell things short, especially when they concern people and their thoughts/motives. Jul 12, 2014 at 3:50
  • In extreme cases, people whose default position is to be suspicious of others' motives are considered paranoid, but that may be too strong a word for the usage you seek.
    – GMB
    Jul 12, 2014 at 12:57

In attribution theory, we're offered a look at how someone might attach meaning to the behavior of others. Some folks will regularly offer their own interpretation of another's behavior in consistently detrimental terms. E.g., the teen who upon being denied permission to go out says to her mother, "You won't let me go because you don't want me to have any fun."

That's an attribution only loosely associated with the circumstance and not based on any factual information. In other words, it's a verbal assault against the one being described and perhaps an attempt at escalation. (see 'gaslighting')

An interesting trigger to watch for - "they did that because".... In every case, the attributor is wrong, no exceptions. The motivation underlying our actions cannot be described in simple terms, even if it's us trying to explain our own actions. To presume an accurate understanding of another's motive is a broad declaration of our own shallow thinking and has little relevance in regards to the other's motive.

Your search for a 'one word' descriptor for such behavior could perhaps be concluded with the word 'butthead' or 'jerk' or similar.


Would “denigrator” be too strong for your purpose? The following words also come to mind but it may not be proper to add suffixes "er or "or" to them: underestimate, misinterpret, and misjudge.


Bulverism is a logical fallacy. The method of Bulverism is to "assume that your opponent is wrong, and explain his error." The Bulverist assumes a speaker's argument is invalid or false and then explains why the speaker came to make that mistake, attacking the speaker or the speaker's motive. The term Bulverism was coined by C. S. Lewis[1] to poke fun at a very serious error in thinking that, he alleges, recurs often in a variety of religious, political, and philosophical debates.

Bulverism is a fallacy of irrelevance. One accuses an argument of being wrong on the basis of the arguer's identity or motive, but these are strictly speaking irrelevant to the argument's validity or truth.

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