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.)


If I may speak for single men everywhere, it's pretty obvious that showering women you've just met with praise and attention doesn't work. If it did, nice guys would be kings. If praise doesn't work, it's pretty obvious that criticism does in proper doses.

My speculation is that this is a status thing. Women seek to elevate their status through their relationships with men. They perceive a man who lavishly praises them as a sycophant of lower status. They dismiss them peremptorily. However, a man who is indifferent, dismissive, or even mildly insulting is perceived as having higher status, a man who might lift them up to his level. The reason for this is that virtually all single women suffer from low self-esteem.

Think about it. When is the last time you heard single women chitchatting for hours about how NICE a guy is? Being nice is the kiss of death to women, who are much more attracted like moths to the guys who burn them. Women love bad boys, can't stop talking about them, are fascinated by them. Their affection is the most precious to them because it is doled out so sparsely, while the nice guy's affection is cheap because it is so plentiful.

If you want proof, just read the papers about how many women flock to murderers on death row. When Scott Peterson was convicted of murdering his wife and sent to death row, there were dozens of women who wanted to marry him. Hundreds of women want to write to him, visit him, get to know the real Scott. Timothy McVeigh, Ted Bundy, and Richard Ramirez were flooded with marriage proposals. Do you think they are attracting women by being nice guys full of flattery, remembering to send them cards, candy, and roses on their birthday?

By contrast, you'll find no men flocking to death row to marry female psycho killers. You won't find men hanging around the female prisoner crying, "I gotta get me some of that death row nookie!"

I'm not endorsing this. I don't make the rules. I just play the game the best I can.


Complexity Junkie

I am playing with the idea that it's not whether or not the insult takes place but how much effort and creativity goes into that particular utterance.
I could give a guy some credit for making an original, skillful "tease". Aren't first dates all about pique-ing the other person's interest?
What is unquestionably repulsive is the notion that sure shot "solutions" can be be found in a idiot's guide to seduction. And I am assuming these shallow readers are not going to have what it takes to make negging work for them...


If some men use insults as a way to retain a mate, what kind of women are allowing this strategy to be successful? I figure that a man who uses insults to retain a mate is very likely to be insecure, and maybe would date women who also are insecure and would tolerate any form of disrespect.


I think many of you miss the point, it's teasing and playful at that. This stupid made-up name to sound like a urban sophisticate is bunk. It's not constant verbal abuse, or trashing another to gain access (mental rape?).

Call it for what it is and has been for as long as men and women (or men/men and women/women for that matter...) have been interacting on a sexual level.

So lighten up people!


This comment is unrelated to this particular article, but I have to say that I'm sadly going to unsubscribe from this blog. I have been more than happy to read these articles in Google Reader, where I can see the articles in full. Seeing only a teaser in the rss feed is the surest way to keep me from reading actual content.

It's too bad. The Freakonomics blog is one of the few I have really found interesting, but being forced to open to a new page so I can view advertisements really disrupts my reading flow. I'd even be perfectly content if the rss feed contained ads. Please let me know if this will change (it'll have to be by email unfortunately.)

Bucky Katt

I don't want to be a contrarian, but I think that if those attacking the techniques outlined in "The Game" had a full understanding of exactly what they were, they would be cheering "Mystery" and his cohorts on, and asking for them to spread their psuedoscientific teachings far and wide. At its most basic level, "The Game" is about empowering men who haven't had romantic success with tools to increase their ability to meet and attract women by becoming, to put it simply, more interesting.

I'm a man (recently engaged!), and honestly, I feel sorry for most single women, because the dating pool of available men wandering around out there is so, so, sad. This will come across as the male equivalent of misogynistic--and if you were ever to meet me in person, you would see that I am open and honest in my contempt towards most of my male brethren--but as a gender, we're pathetic.

Taken as a whole, and ignoring for the purposes of this posting individual differences that exist from man to man, we men are fat, lazy, and stupid. We're bad dressers, and we're way too interested in sports for our own good, or for the good of anyone else. We drink too much beer, and say and do stupid things, like fart on and hit each other for fun. Oh, and did I mention that most of us are too afraid to approach and talk to women?

This is the dross that single women have to pick through in search of companionship. This is why 10% of the male population has over 90% of the sexual encounters--because there are so few men out there who truly appeal to women.

So there are people out there like Mystery who basically tell men, hey, get your act together. If you learn how to dress, how to act, and how to engage in interesting conversations with women, you will increase your romantic success. Why is this so upsetting to so many? I would think that women would be in favor of anything that improves the male dating pool.

P.S. No, I did not have to resort to "trickery" to attract my betrothed. I read "The Game" over two years after we first started dating.


Jim Rockford

Geena -- women in abusive relationships generally end up in them because they select the highest status guy they can find. In lower socio-economic groups this correlates with higher physical aggression, violence, and abuse. After all, why do they choose these violent men when they could have chosen others who were "nice?" It's the status of course (or perceived status). Heck even Madonna got tied to a chair for hours by her then-hubby Sean Penn (though she wisely ditched him immediately).

This "neg" concept as I understand it is all about presenting status: a man makes a backhanded, semi-teasing compliment that shows he's unimpressed with the woman.

This works because it (along with many other behaviors and clothing, appearance, bearing) shouts "I AM HIGH STATUS!"

Women really only care about status, not much else. This holds true for one-night-stands or long-term relationships. The study is fairly interesting but it didn't obviously control for a man's status (as perceived by others, particularly his mate) and his own self-perception of status.

A man with high status will have women almost throwing themselves at him (or actually doing it, see Bill Clinton, any Rockstar, guys like Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt, etc.). This naturally builds confidence and ease, and women seeing other women perceiving the man to be high status will react accordingly and be very interested.

You could probably replicate "Mystery's" success just as easily by hiring beautiful women to pretend to be interested in a guy who was cleaned up and given minimal pointers on behavior. They probably wouldn't even have to "neg" as long as they did things to indicate high status.

The degree of polygamy in mammals is indicated by male-female size differences. Average size difference between men and women is around 20% so that indicates a natural female preference for polygamy (high status men having many women) to a slight degree. So yeah according to icky, awful science and Darwin and Natural Selection you'll see mate-guarding and the like. Since those who don't guard don't have descendants. Status-based concepts WORK because women prefer above all else status in men. Not much else matters.

I know, science is evil and evolution applies to every living thing but humans. Because we are just special dang it!



I don't think insulting is the right word. Something more like cutting 'em down to size to show them they are human like the rest of us and to break down the barriers between us. But it needs to be done in a humorous way. In an effort to not have to fawn all over someone when you first meet them, because women are used to that. To let them know you aren't fooled by their charms right off the bat. They have to do something more to impress you besides look good. I don't know if I make sense. Thanks.

Robert Plamondon

I'm fascinated by how these conversations turn out. A statement is made on some topic or other in the blog. Then posters make comments not on the blog itself, but on a myth or stereotype that the blog reminds them on. Later comments are either responses to this myth/stereotype or alternate ones.

The study quoted in the blog was about behavior in long-term relationships, not about pick-up lines. And it's about how the people in the study actually behaved (or how they reported their behavior), not about how we imagine they should have behaved. The variations don't fit most people's expectations, which is thought-provoking -- or should be.


And we wonder why there are so few female economists... I'm sure every female economics student would love to discuss this topic in a room full of men. BTW, some of these comments belong in the 16th century.


... keeps them thinking "maybe I'm not as good as I thought I was and maybe he's too good for me and realizing it." rather than "I could be doing better"


The truth is that there is a wide range of behaviors and preferences among both sexes. There are many exceptions to every sweeping gender-generalization expressed here. Just as there are women who'd respond positively to an insult, there are many who'd simply be insulted. I'd speculate that a women who respond positively to having her self-esteem undermined by an insult is one who has a low self-esteem to begin with.
Economically speaking, the person who is least interested in a relationship is the one who controls it.
P.S. to RealWoman; FACT: A woman worth bedding is the one who is ready, willing, able, and (preferably) unencumbered.
I can understand your misperception, though, as your moniker belies the fact that you've never sported a raging erection.


This technique works for bedding these ladies because it weeds past the women with healthy self-esteem quickly so that the man can find a woman with low enough self-esteem to allow herself to be taken advantage.

If the guy had to pick up a specific woman his rate of success would be much lower. Of course, in a tv show, his failures can be edited out.


The neg is a tease, it is a way to flirt. It is a way to indicate that you are not a drooling schmuck.

It is not a sadistic insult, it is actually connecting with an attractive woman directly by deflecting all the attractive accessories.


I have a friend - he's 5'6, 5'7, tops. He went bald when we were freshmen in college. Female friends have generally confided that they find him incredibly unattractive. He has terrible english-language skills.

And yet he is one of those rare guys who can walk up to a group of six women and within seconds have them eating out of his hand.

You can probably guess that his approach does not involve saying sweet things to women. He would open by crudely comment on women's body parts, or by telling a story about a fantasy or a sexual conquest. (He didn't clean up once they started dating, either.)

And the very same women who claimed they found him repugnant were the ones who stood there and lapped up his insults. One week, my female friends who tell me his disgusted them; the next week they'd be going home with him.

His approach was particularly successful in bars, where women adopt the "B*tch Shield" commenter #31 refers to. I could always meet women at parties or during daylight hours because the trust level with a stranger was higher. But my friend was particularly skilled at meeting women at the moments when they assumed everyone was a scumbag.

The irony, of course, is that my friend was the big scumbag the women were supposedly intending to avoid. And he got them to let down their guard by behaving like a scumbag!



I think that women who are insulted are like women who are abused. How often do you see a woman who is abused make excuses for how her partner "still loves her" despite his behavior? Also it seems to resemble Stockholm syndrome. People are just conditioned by something strong and forceful. Unfortunately, most times its negative. If it were positive, they might suspect ulterior motives, unless it was pure. But, that's just my opinion...


Melissa Lafsky: you're guilty of misrepresentation. "Negging" is not "insulting", but your post basically flat out associates the two.

Your post has really done a disservice to both of the topics you posted on. Please check your facts: I'm ashamed to find such quality on the Freakonomics blog.


i'm perplexed by guys who think insulting a girl will get them anywhere. yes, a girl doesn't want to be drooled on, but why can't guys just learn how to engage in interesting conversation rather than resort to rediculous tactics such as 'negging.' my advice is to read some real books (literature, art, history, etc) for a change or travel to some countries so that you guys have something interesting to talk about. and please stop trying to impress because it is sooooo obvious!!!

in addition, please take care of your appearances...women care a lot about how you look and smell!

lastly, if a guy insulted me (even mildly), i'd simply ignore him...there are far more men out there who are decent enough to respect women. so yes, some girls will fall for it, but they'll most likely fall for anything. i'm convinced that many men prefer going after 'easy' targets to boost their self-confidence...that's why there's so much date rape: men find it easier to get girls drunk and take advantage of them! how pathetic!!!!



Negging is much different then what is being described in the article. It is a technique used in the early stages of meeting a woman, not a tactic used throughout a relationship. It is a tactic used to tease the prettiest and obviously most beautiful women at the bar or in the set you are talking to. Most beautiful women know they are beautiful and have men put them on a pedastal and cater to them like slaves. When a man "negs" a beautiful women they are not used to that and subminally intrigues them. The point of negging is not to entirely destroy the self esteem of the woman, it is to get her attention and interest to build off later. I feel this article has misinterpretted negging. It is a clever process and must be used in a witty manner and not be over the top to hurt the womans feeling completely. Negging is a tough rope to walk though, because you can go over the top and hurt the womans feelings to much putting her completely off of you.

Women have to admit, however, the worse a man treats them at times, the more they end up wanting them. This has happened to me over and over in my life. Once a man is able to understand this and stop completely grovelling over the woman he likes, he is golden.



I wonder if lowering the woman's self-esteem is the only reason this technique tends to work (if, indeed, it does). Seems that by insulting the other, the male is also demonstrating a lack of desperation, i.e. strength and self-confidence, which could certainly be a turn-on to many women.