Six Ways Self-Defeating Humor Takes a Terrible Toll

Learn how to joke in ways which contribute to your health and well-being. Think twice before making a joke at your own expense, even if it is familiar and seems harmless. Accumulating research highlights the risks, and identifies few benefits.

Grant H Brenner
9 min readDec 21, 2022


Anna Shvets/Pexels

Sense of humor is so key to our personalities. Humor is inherently social, signaling to others our views and beliefs, our “vibe”. Humor is a huge part of “chemistry” — but instant intimacy can backfire if we bond with someone who turns out to be a different person than we thought and we’re not prepared to break it off.

Four Types of Humor

Research finds four humor styles: affiliative, which brings people together; self-enhancing, which helps the individual manage and make sense of difficult circumstances; self-deprecating (self-defeating), making jokes at one’s own expense; and aggressive, making another person or entity the butt of the joke.

In general, affiliative and self-enhancing humor are more prosocial, associated with well-being and good relationships; while aggressive humor is generally neutral, or even associated with elevated social status (within one’s own group), but may be problematic in many ways because we make ourselves look perhaps like a bully. It’s harder to make a case for self-deprecating humor, despite how common it seems. Jokes serve many functions1; self-deprecating humor communicates something — but what?

At Our Own Expense

Making jokes at one’s own expense often has the quality of a compulsion or addiction — we may blurt out self-effacing comments, directing aggressive humor inward, even when we don’t want to. It may be low-hanging fruit, safe-seeming, to get a laugh, but we are taking pot shots at ourselves. Try to resist the (neurotic) tendency to diss oneself when under social strain. It’s hard to kick the habit, but the relief and quick win are usually not worth the cost.

Reviewing the Research on Self-Deprecating Jokes

1. Self-esteem. In multiple studies, self-deprecating humor is associated with lower…



Grant H Brenner

Psychiatrist, Psychoanalyst, Entrepreneur, Writer, Speaker, Disaster Responder, Advocate, Photographer