Why Every Manipulator Employs The Simple Yet Powerful Tactic Of 'Negging'

What prompts people to use insults sugar-coated with compliments in social settings?

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | August 16, 2023

If you have ever found yourself feeling confused, insecure, and even doubting your own worth around certain individuals, it might be a good idea to watch out for warning signs of potentially triggering behaviors like "negging."

Negging, which is short for "negative hit" or "negative comment" is a manipulative tactic that involves giving someone a backhanded compliment in what is essentially an insult masquerading as a compliment.

From creating a general feeling of uneasiness to heightened anxiety, decreased self-worth and a constant need for validation, negging can have an immensely detrimental impact on the receiver's well-being over time. Studies also find that negging harms the giver's likability, making it a lose-lose situation for all involved.

Yet, despite its detrimental outcomes, negging continues to be a common occurrence. So, what drives people to engage in this toxic behavior? Here's what research has to say.

1. Backhanded Compliments Signal Status And Fuel Power Dynamics

While flattery generally has positive outcomes, backhanded compliments are confusing, as they create a mismatch between the intended flattery and the actual perception of the receiver.

Discomforting statements like "You're smarter than you look" or "You're pretty funny, for a girl," even when they are well-intended, can come across as condescending or insulting, causing discomfort and offense rather than flattery.

In a 2019 study that aimed to understand why people give backhanded compliments, participants were asked to choose between giving a straightforward compliment or a backhanded compliment to elicit liking, conveying status, or both.

The researchers found that while very few (5%) chose backhanded compliments when asked to elicit liking, over 4 in 5 (81%) chose backhanded compliments when they wanted to convey status — suggesting that there might be a power struggle at play when someone engages in "negging" to subtly assert their superiority.

2. Negging Masks The Giver's Own Insecurities

Recent studies suggest that another reason for negging could be a sense of insecurity. Another experiment from the same research project found that people were not only more likely to use backhanded compliments to convey status but also more likely to use them as a shield if they perceived a threat to their own status.

Participants in this study were presented with scenarios involving a coworker after receiving either a positive or negative evaluation from their supervisor. Results showed that when participants received a negative evaluation (status threat), they were significantly more likely to choose a backhanded compliment when interacting with a coworker.

People, especially those who are hypersensitive to rejection and hence at a bigger risk of misinterpreting the actions of others, may find themselves engaging in backhanded compliments more often, often in a knee-jerk attempt to restore their own status.


It is important to realize that not all backhanded compliments are meant to be hurtful. Regardless of the intentions or motivations behind this behavior, it is only through understanding your own needs that you can respond appropriately, navigate negging scenarios confidently, protect your well-being, and establish healthy boundaries during your interactions with others.