Denise Cummins Ph.D.

Good Thinking

The Real Reason Some Women Put Themselves Down

It's not low self-esteem. It's a more subtle strategy.

Posted Apr 29, 2015

Syda Productions/Shutterstock
Source: Syda Productions/Shutterstock

When people compliment some women, their immediate knee-jerk reaction is to put themselves down rather than to just accept it and show gratitude. In this satirical video clip, comedian Amy Schumer and other female performers suggest that perhaps women do this because they have low self-esteem or hate themselves, or because society has taught them to shun compliments.

Contrary to common thought, the real reason some women put themselves down is as powerful as it is subtle:

Women put themselves down to protect themselves from envy and jealousy. And they deploy this behavior strategically.

While advertisers would have you believe that being the target of jealousy and envy is an admirable goal, most women know—either implicitly or through experience—the dangers of evoking jealousy.

Consider the maxim, "Attractive people always get the most cake." Like most assumed truisms, it's only partly true. In fact, how attractive people are treated depends primarily on whether they are perceived as competitors. In one set of studies, in which job applicants were rated by males and females, both male and female raters penalized attractive candidates who were of their same sex, preferring attractive candidates of the opposite sex. The reason is shocking: Attractive candidates who were the same sex as the rater were perceived to be threatening

Another set of studies involving more than 3,000 job and scholarship applicants found that moderately attractive and unattractive participants discriminated against highly attractive candidates of the same sex while showing a pro-attractiveness bias for opposite-sex applicants. The researchers explained the differences this way: Highly attractive same-sex individuals can pose especially potent social threats.

Another study used the "dictator" economics game to investigate the impact of attractiveness on people's reactions to unfairness. In this game, a sum of money is assigned to one participant, who is free to decide whether to keep it all or share some with another participant. In the study, a third party observed the game and evaluated the fairness level of monetary allocation, as well as their desire to punish the dictator depending on what he or she decided to do with the money.

The researchers found that greedy same-sex dictators were punished more severely than opposite-sex dictators who were also physically attractive. When the dictators were unattractive, people were far more lenient with them, even when they were stingy in the way they divided the money. These third-party observers behaved as though they wanted to ensure that "the pretty people don't get the most cake."

It seems that people perceived as attractive may not have it easier after all. If you find yourself the victim of such bias, you can safeguard yourself by learning to strategically poke fun at yourself.

When someone pays you a compliment, they have awarded you high status in your group. Employing self-deprecation can cement that higher status in a very non-threatening way. Self-deprecating humor has been found to increase perceived attractiveness of high-status men and women but can backfire for those perceived as low status, making them seem less attractive.

A recent study in the journal Leadership and Organization Development found that effective leaders often use self-deprecating humor to improve their perceived likability—and improve compliance. In the study, 155 undergraduates (58 males, 97 females) were assigned randomly to one of four conditions, each depicting a different type of humor. Undergraduates rated leaders who used self-deprecating humor higher on individualized consideration (a factor of transformational leadership) than those who used more aggressive humor.

According to leadership expert Karen Anderson, self-deprecating humor unites people because it disarms and makes others feel included. She notes that this is especially helpful when others may have reason to feel in awe of you, or ignored by you.

Or as Bloomberg’s Vanessa Wong points out, “Self-deprecating humor—traditionally women’s humor—is actually best at work as it’s not threatening, and no one actually thinks less of a person for it.”

Copyright Dr. Denise Cummins April 29, 2015.


Dr. Denise Cummins is a research psychologist, a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science, and the author of Good Thinking: Seven Powerful Ideas That Influence the Way We Think. More information about her can be found on her homepage, and her books can be found here.