It turns out that there's an argument to be made for turning down compliments. 

Conventional thinking holds that women tend to play down praise from others--using self-deprecating humor, for example--because they have lower self-esteem than men do. But new research shows that defusing compliments may have more to do with a different (and greener) demon.

In a recent article in Psychology Today, research psychologist Denise Cummins dissects this Comedy Central video clip, in which female comedians like Amy Schumer poke fun at how frequently women reject compliments. She then explains how compliments often reflect the giver's jealousy, as well as elicit jealousy in the people around you. 

Here are some of Cummins' other insights, which you should take into account the next time you go to pay a compliment (or receive a compliment) at work: 

1. There are dangers in being the subject of someone's jealousy.

Despite the fact that envy can be a powerful emotion, it's not always a good thing to be the subject of someone's jealousy--that's why women try to make it go away.

To prove this, Cummins cites a set of studies from the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology in which both men and women punished job candidates of their same sex who they considered to be more attractive. They also placed more value on the candidates they deemed less attractive (and who were therefore judged to be less of a threat). In this case, being envied also meant losing out on the job. 

2. Self-deprecating humor does more than defuse jealousy--it can also build you up. 

Women often put themselves down as a way to promote themselves higher.  

Cummins points to a study from the Leadership and Organization Development Journal, which found that students tended to rate leaders better if those leaders used self-deprecating humor, as opposed to overtly "aggressive" humor. To a certain extent, she argues, women who defuse compliments are successful at becoming more valued by their peers. 

3. Compliments make others feel threatened.

If you pay someone a compliment in public, consider how it makes others around you feel, warns Cummins. In another set of studies, women who imagined witnessing someone paying their partner a compliment led to feelings of fear and jealousy--or worse yet, to thoughts that the person giving the compliment was trying to steal their partner away (a phenomenon known as "mate poaching"). 

So next time you witness a woman turning down a compliment, consider that it's not about lack of self-confidence: She might know exactly what it is she's doing. 

Published on: May 4, 2015