Studies reveal women put themselves down to ward off jealousy and envy
In this very funny video clip(link is external), Amy Schumer and other female comediennes satirize women’s stereotypical knee-jerk reaction to compliments: When someone says something nice about us, we immediately put ourselves down. Why do women do this?
The clip offers the same old explanations for this perplexing behavior: Women have low self-esteem, women hate themselves, society has taught us to shun compliments, haters gonna hate. But the real reason is as powerful as it is subtle.
Women put themselves down in order to protect themselves from envy and jealousy. And they deploy this behavior strategically.
Consider the truism that “attractive people always get the most cake”, that is, they are treated better and are more successful than unattractive people. Like most truisms, this one is only partly true. How attractive people are treated depends on whether they are perceived as competitors. In one set of studies(link is external), unattractive and attractive job applicants were evaluated by male and female raters. Both males and females penalized attractive candidates who were the same sex as the rater while preferring attractive candidates of the opposite sex. Attractive candidates who were the same sex as the rater were perceived by the raters as threatening.
Another set of studies(link is external) involving over 3,000 job and scholarship applicants found the same results: Moderately attractive and unattractive participants discriminated against highly attractive same-sex candidates, while showing a pro-attractiveness bias for opposite-sex applicants. The researchers explained these differences this way: Highly attractive same-sex individuals can pose especially potent social threats.
Another study(link is external) 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 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 what they decided to do with the money. The researchers found that greedy same-sex Dictators were punished more severely than opposite-sex Dictators when they were 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”.
Compliments typically draw attention to a person’s attractiveness, accomplishments, or other jealousy-attracting features. For this reason, compliments can be dangerous things. The one giving the compliment may be doing so out of jealousy (Look, everyone! She’s better than us!), or may elicit jealousy in others (You’re trying to steal my friend/mate away from me). In one set of studies(link is external), women were found to feel more threatened than men when imagining another person complimenting their partner’s physical appearance. The researchers interpreted this to mean that the women feared such compliments were attempts at “mate poaching.”
One extremely effective way of defusing such jealousy is to use self-deprecating humor—poking fun at yourself.
Self-deprecating humor has been found(link is external) to increase perceived attractiveness of high-status men and women, but can backfire for those perceived as low status, making them seem less attractive. When someone pays you a compliment, they have awarded you high status in your group. A bit of self-deprecation can cement that higher status in a very non-threatening way.
A recent study(link is external) published in the Leadership and Organization Development Journalfound that effective leaders often use self-deprecating humor to improve their perceived likability and to 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 in a leader’s speech. Leaders using self-deprecating humor were rated higher on individualized consideration (a factor of transformational leadership) than those that used aggressive humor.
Karen Anderson(link is external), a leadership expert who writes for Forbes magazine points out that self-deprecating humor can pull others closer, even in unexpected kinds of work, such as spying for the CIA. Why? Because self-deprecating humor is disarming, and makes others feel more included. She notes that this is especially helpful when others may have reason to feel in awe of you or feel ignored by you. Bloomberg’s Vanessa Wong points out that “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.”
So remember these things the next time you see women respond to compliments with self-deprecation. We have learned from experience that refusing to do so doesn’t cause the complimenters to self-destruct (as in the Amy Schumer clip), but instead is more likely instead to lead to this(link is external).