I’ve had debates with colleagues about this very question. When my friends and I are out, we find that we can poke fun at each other and even ourselves, and the people around seem unfazed, even being more into us after it. It made me wonder why it was considered an asset when I did it, but I’ve seen people get disgusted and repulsed when other guys do it.
An interesting 2008 study answers this question once and for all: does self-deprecating humor, i.e. making fun of yourself, make you more attractive or not?. And the answer is an extremely clear “it depends.”
Just as it is the case in other situations, a high-status guy (i.e. a handsome guy with a lot going for him, like money, status, etc) benefits from such humor, while a low status guy loses attractiveness points. “When it rains, it pours, eh?” (actually don’t buy that…that’s taking a victim mentality, which is low status).
The study showed that if a guy is clearly perceived as high value, then people know this, and the humor makes him more attractive. A low value guy making fun of himself comes across as accurate, and people sense he is being his usual needy self, and his humor is just another way of feeling sorry for himself repelling all normal humans.
But why? Why would a high value guy want to poke fun at himself, and why do people actually find him more attractive when he does it?
Buried in the study is the interesting reason. Psychologists often use five major dimensions of personality to assess people. These are conscientiousness (general awareness), agreeableness, extroversion, neuroticism, and openness (i.e. to experiences and ideas). Most high status and successful people, such as CEOs and athletes, rate low on agreeableness and to a lesser degree neuroticism. While neuroticism being unattractive makes sense…but agreeableness? Yep, it’s true, even if seems counterintuitive.
However, quickly turn your thoughts to the least successful guy in the dating market…the agreeable (and anxiously neurotic) “nice guy.” So, the study points out that self-deprecating humor may be the high status/low agreeable dude emphasizing that he doesn’t have those low-value traits. I mean, he could stand next to a low value dude, be a douche, and point out the differences, but that will actually lose him social points (nobody likes that).
So, instead an unmistakably high value guy compares himself to an obviously fake and inferior “joke” version of himself, which makes his “real self” look even better. The authors of study say it like this (minus the word “douche” of course):
Thus, self-deprecating humor may be a way of transiently faking inferior personally traits, to highlight the discrepancy between the faked traits (e.g., introversion, neuroticism) and the traits actually required to win high status.
So, there are a few lessons here:
– Be high value. Poking fun at yourself actually shows more of your charm.
– Don’t be low value: be less neurotic and agreeable. If you can’t quite shed these traits, don’t make fun of yourself around others, as it will come across as neurotic and needy.