The Best Way to Handle Someone Who Puts You Down

New research suggests the driving forces behind people who like to mock others.

Posted Apr 03, 2021 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch

KEY POINTS

  • New research shows how personality can influence people’s need to feel superior by using disparaging humor.
  • You can test yourself to see whether you are a katagelasticist, gelotophobe, or gelotophile.
  • It’s possible to overcome disparaging humor directed toward you by seeing the situation as a challenge rather than a threat.

When people make fun of you, it can leave you feeling shaken by causing you to question the very basis for your own self-worth. If those who put you down are people who are close to you, the impact could potentially be either much worse or, conversely, not that bad.

Perhaps you have an in-law whose main form of relating to you involves jabs about your appearance, your clothes, the food you bring to get-togethers, or the way you relate to your partner or children. You’ve gotten used to this behavior, but you don’t really like it.

If the person mocking you isn’t someone you know very well, you might just shrug it off as being not your problem but theirs. However, it’s also possible that if the remark hits home, you won’t walk away so easily. You might, for example, insist to the clerk at a store checkout counter that an online coupon should be considered valid in the store. The person behind you in line (socially distanced, of course) laughs and makes a rude comment about what a cheapskate you are and loudly proclaims that you should hurry up and get going. This comment hurts because you are in fact trying to spend wisely but, then again, it makes you wonder if in fact you are too much of a penny-pincher.

In a recent paper, the University of Macedonia’s Leonidas Hatzithomas and colleagues (2021) explored the phenomenon of so-called “disparagement humor,” that earlier researchers define as humor “that disparages, belittles, debases, demeans, humiliates, or otherwise victimizes." Examining the role of this type of humor in advertisements, the Macedonian authors noted that the past 20 years have actually seen an increase in its prevalence. In particular, they point out that Super Bowl ads have grown increasingly aggressive and disparaging in their approach to selling products, such as using storylines that involve mocking or insulting people who don’t know about the item (e.g. “Are you living under a rock?”).

What makes disparagement humor so attractive both on television and in real life?

As you might suspect, there’s a fair amount of need for superiority in the perpetrator who's dishing out the jokes. The so-called “superiority theory” of disparagement humor (with its roots in Plato) proposes that people who identify with such jokers (or the jokers themselves) want to feel that they’re better than everyone else. They set up a scenario so that by putting others down, they themselves can rise up.  

Which personality traits predict who's likely to put you down?

As Hatzithomas et al. note, the reason people engage in and enjoy disparagement humor isn’t quite as simple as the need to show off. There are, they point out, specific personality traits that come into play when, in the case of advertising, people either like or don’t like a put-down. People high in “katagelasticism” like laughing at others. Those high in “gelotophobia” fear being laughed at and those high in “gelotophilia” actually love being laughed at. Depending on where you stand in these three dispositions will determine how disparaging humor affects you. Indeed, you might even find it fun that your in-law makes jokes about your sweater or hair color.

Turning now to the qualities that distinguish each of these traits, people high in katagelasticism ("katagelasticists") appear to use cruel humor as a “personal adaptive strategy to avoid ridicule by others and regain self-esteem." These are the people, the authors believe, who disparage others to feel superior, perhaps stemming back to a childhood in which they themselves were laughed at by their peers.

Gelotophobes, by contrast, also were targeted by bullies when they were young but rather than turn their experiences around to establish their own superiority, they become highly sensitive to being made fun of, and don’t engage in that behavior themselves. They don’t like to see others disparaged, either, identifying with the victim and not the perpetrator.

Finally, gelotophiles, the ones who enjoy being made fun of, are extraverted, spontaneous, and self-confident and take pleasure in making the best of an awkward situation. They find humor directed toward them as a “token of appreciation and admiration." When seeing a disparaging ad, then, they find it funny rather than hurtful.

As you can see from these definitions, a need for superiority drives only some people who like to make fun of you. They may be gelotophiles who like to give as well as get, seeing these situations as funny, but it’s more likely they fall into that first category of being high in katagelasticism.

Disparaging Humor Gets Put to the Test

To study the proposed relationship between personality and enjoyment of disparaging humor, the Macedonian research team devised two experiments in which participants viewed a cartoon either involving disparagement or not. In one of these experiments, the scene involved an ad for a beach showing a beachgoer and a police officer. The disparaging condition presented the beachgoer as relaxing next to a police officer who was tied to a beach umbrella. Participants in these experiments were 814 university students ranging in age from 21 to 37 years old, roughly equally divided by gender.

Examining the role of superiority, Hatzithomas et al. administered a set of items regarding the scenes. Participants rated the ad in terms of it making them feel superior or inferior, as well as whether they thought it was morally right or wrong. Additionally, participants rated their mood at the time of the experiment.

The measure of humor-related personality traits, as reported in Torres et al. (2019) uses items in which participants rate themselves on katagelasticism (“I enjoy exposing others and I am happy when I get laughed at”), gelotophobia (“When they laugh in my presence I get suspicious”), and gelotophilia (“When I am with other people, I enjoy making jokes at my own expense to make the others laugh.").

What does the research show about those who enjoy putting you down?

Turning now to the findings, the authors reported that, as predicted, high katagelasticists indeed experienced higher feelings of superiority when they saw the disparaging ad, as well as finding it funnier than did those low in this trait. The gelotophobes felt more inferior, but the gelotophiles thought the ad was funny regardless of its use of disparagement.

These results, in the view of the Macedonian authors, support the idea that both superiority and inferiority are important in understanding disparaging humor. Hatzithomas et al. believe that their findings stand in contrast to the standard Freudian view that all humor involves a release of physiological arousal driven by sexual and aggressive motives. It’s a desire for superiority that leads the disparaging humorists to take these feelings out on other people, but a desire to avoid feeling inferior that leads people to find this humor so painful.

What's the best way to bounce back from a put-down?

How can you use these findings to help you feel better if you’re a gelotophobe exposed to a katagelasticist? One way is to force yourself to edge closer to the gelotophilia end of the spectrum. That annoying in-law may use this humor as a form of affection, or may just be dealing with their own feelings of inadequacy compared to you. However, if it’s someone you don’t know, such as the stranger at the checkout counter, you can comfort yourself by seeing this person’s behavior as reflecting a need to prove superiority over convenient targets. In either case, the Macedonian study suggests that you take personality into account when dealing both with your own feelings and the disparaging humor of others.

To sum up, being the target of someone who pokes fun at you doesn’t have to be unpleasant. You can both understand this person as needing to boost a weak sense of self. Even better from a coping standpoint, you can turn the experience into the type of challenge a gelotophile may enjoy or even see it as a compliment. In either case, your own fulfillment doesn’t have to be threatened by someone putting you down as you show that you are indeed the bigger person.

Facebook image: Prostock-studio/Shutterstock

References

Hatzithomas, L., Voutsa, M. C., Boutsouki, C., & Zotos, Y. (2021). A superiority–inferiority hypothesis on disparagement humor: The role of disposition toward ridicule. Journal of Consumer Behaviour. doi: 10.1002/cb.1931

Torres, M. J., Proyer, R. T., López, B. R., Brauer, K., & Carretero, D. H. (2019). Beyond the big five as predictors of dispositions toward ridicule and being laughed at: The hexaco model and the dark triad. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology doi: 10.1111/sjop.12563