The Science of Insulting Women

Picking up women has been getting plenty of press these days, leading up to this week’s premiere of the VH1 reality show The Pick-Up Artist. The show follows eight “socially inept” men through an eight-week boot camp on seduction techniques, led by a self-proclaimed Lothario called “Mystery.” The headliner (whose real name is Erik Von Markovik) initially found fame after being profiled in Neil Strauss‘s 2005 book The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists, and went on to co-write his own book, How to Get Beautiful Women Into Bed: The Mystery Method.

Under particular discussion is a pickup technique that Mystery advocates known as “negging” — a move that involves interjecting an insult during an initial conversation with a woman. The motivation behind the insult is, as Esquire’s A.J. Jacobs puts it, to “lower her self-esteem, thus making her more vulnerable to your advances.” While this tactic has provoked considerable ire, by all accounts from Strauss and his skirt-chasing Svengali, it seems to work.

Meanwhile, the psychologists Steve Stewart-Williams and William F. McKibbin have been researching the topic of men insulting women, publishing a study called “Why Do Men Insult Their Intimate Partners?” in the July Journal of Personality and Individual Differences.

Their first set of data consisted of a survey of 245 men with a mean age of 25.8, all of whom had been in heterosexual relationships for a mean length of 43.1 months. Each man was asked to record how often he insulted his female partner in the course of a month, choosing from a list of 47 insults divided into four categories: “derogating physical attractiveness” (e.g. “You’re ugly”); “derogating value as partner/mental capacity” (e.g. “You make my life miserable” or “You’re stupid”); “derogating value as a person” (e.g. “You’re useless”); and “accusations of sexual infidelity.”

These men were also asked to record how often they performed any of 104 acts labeled “mate retention behaviors” during that same month, including “direct guarding” (e.g., secretly following a partner when she goes out alone) and “public signals of possession.”

A second set of data came from 372 women who were asked to detail the number and type of insults they received from their partners, as well as the males’ mate-retention behavior rates.

The results showed that men who piled on the insults (particularly those in the “derogating value as partner/mental capacity” group) were far more likely to engage in mate retention behaviors, suggesting that “men’s partner-directed insults may be deployed as part of a broader strategy of mate retention.”

Next, maybe Stewart-Williams and McKibbin will turn their attention to the relationship-initiation phase and gather data on “negging.” Or maybe they’ll tackle a question that many would surely like to know: if it’s successful for men, does it work for women as well?

(Hat tip: The British Psychological Society Blog.)


Fact: No woman worth keeping or bedding for that matter wants to be insulted within the first 10 seconds of conversation.

Steve Curtis

I've no doubt it would work for women as well as men. I'd be curious to see a more in-depth discussion of the evolutionary psychology of gaining or keeping a mate by lowering their self-esteem. More proof that "nice" people are at a disadvantage. Hahaha.


Sad, but probably accurate.

I expect that what is really going on is that people have a notion about how much effort is needed to keep a relationship (or even just a conversation) going, and if one partner seems uninterested in carrying very much of that effort (as by making diminishing comments), the other partner will often willingly take up the extra burden. And then, because we reliably confuse what we spend time and effort on with what is important and with what we like, the weight-bearing partner ends up being hooked.

A confident and healthy person generally won't put up with such nonsense for too long, and in the here-now, probably fewer women than men have managed to reach adulthood confident and healthy.


This is no different than a captor physically impairing their hostage to prevent them from fleeing or fighting. A cut achilles and a broken spirit accomplish the same thing.

On a related note, is physical abuse seen as a strategy for "mate retention"?

Game Disciple

I've read the book and "the game" works. Negging is but ONE of several very useful techniques.


Wow. My ex did these things and I thought it was an indication our relationship was falling apart so I broke up with him (mostly because of the insults!) It was really confusing when he got even meaner afterwards, like he really was upset I had broken it off. He's mean to his mom as well.


Are these studies only done with American women?

It would be interesting to see how women in different ethnic groups would react to this type of male behavior.

nice guys = doormat / sherpa


In the Internet dating scene, women are almost universally abusive; indeed the mores seem to require that men assume a position of meek martyrdom. I don't know where this "study" was done, but it sure wasn't done in New York City.

Sandy Splitter

This whole conversation is moronic! This study is obviously junk science and giving it this much attention speaks to the lack of meaningful activities in peoples lives today! This blog is a waist internet space.

So, you want to get a drink sometime?

Ezra Green

A woman's sense of love comes from the way her father treated her, which inevitably included criticism. The woman who falls for this is just behaving naturally. This is "love" to her.


Nothing a woman says about what she wants in a man is worth believing. Thats why men go to Mystery and don't read Cosmo. Women say one thing but women's behavior (for the most part) indicates that they indeed enjoy the challenge and playfulness a "neg" brings with it, such as "I like your hair, is it real?".
If what women said they wanted actually worked then the phrase 'nice guys finish last' would be unheard of.


Hmm. Correlation between insulting one's partner and "mate retention behaviors". MRB, as described here, comes off as creepy stalker behavior, rather than, for example, giving her flowers for no particular reason.

So, in essense, they've found a correlation between jerk behavior and jerk behavior.

Melanie Smellanie

I have a waist of about 39 inches...and this blog has a "a waist internet space."...LOL

Seriously, though, I agree with this comment:

"Fact: No woman worth keeping or bedding for that matter wants to be insulted within the first 10 seconds of conversation.

— Posted by RealWoman"

However, I'd expand it to say that no PERSON worth keeping wants to be insulted within the first 10 seconds of a conversation.

I know this sort of mental game play crap works on men as well as women, gay or straight, whatever. Unfortunately, human beings seem to like a challenge...if we meet someone who's rough around the edges, a very large number of us will think "OH, I will be the one to fix him/her!!" Lots of people like to take on "projects" rather than actually seeking mates...whether it's a conscious effort to do so or not, it happens.


I suppose "the game" method works if all you're trying to do is win at some cosmic sport. The rest of us grown-ups are trying to foster real, lasting, enriching relationships founded on mutual respect and admiration. What do you get out of a relationship based on insults, jealousy, and submission?


There is a major difference between maliciously belittling someone and "negging." The insulting done in the study is likely far different in both purpose and tone than negging.

A neg is simply a way to create a subtle imbalance in conversation and encourage further interaction. I don't believe it has much at all to do with lowering a woman's self esteem.

David Wynn

I think the only thing that Mystery's technique offers is a sense of confidence within his pupils. I think if we measured it, we'd find that successful advances towards a potential partner would be more highly corrleated with a scale of confidence than a scale of how insulting the men were. I see confidence as the lurking variable in the retention behavior study as well.

Insulted Woman

Absolutely, Sandy!


Lykis 101 (from a FM talk radio show by Tom Lykis in which these tactics are taken to their extreme, and unforunately work all too well. )

recovering idealisist

Firstly, there is no blanket approach to relationships
However, I've used "negging" when dealing with some females decades before I even knew the word. I also learned to employ a backhanded complement when I'm really interested in having someone interested in me.
Sadly it all does work and that is entirely due to how the female mind functions.

If it didn't function it would cease to be a channel for communication
and relationship building (as contradictory as that seems).

I used to believe otherwise.. but I've seen and experienced the sad truth many times over. So for those women that are so entrenched with their own illusions of who they are and take objection to my words. Sorry but you'll only have your convictions and cats to keep you warm tonight.

recovering idealisist

"Fact: No woman worth keeping or bedding for that matter wants to be insulted within the first 10 seconds of conversation."

Completely incorrect. That interpretation shows a complete lack of social understanding.
It's never considered an insult of the subject is even the slightest bit interested. It'll be interpreted as a challenge to the female as well as a statement of confidence on the males behalf. It's all in the presentation and mixing of signals.
No I haven't read the book - I know from real world experience.