To Brag or Not to Brag?

By Ovul Sezer
Ph.D. University of North Carolina

October 23, 2018

Editor's Note: Professor Sezer passed this article along a while ago, but I’ve been soooooooo busy with all the other awesome PeopleScience articles, conferences and media demands that I haven’t had a chance to review it until now. It’s sooooooooooo hard having so much great content.

In both our social and professional lives, we know what to do when the stakes are high: Make a good impression. From securing a second date, to acing the dream job interview, to presenting in front of a new client — making a favorable impression influences countless material and social rewards. But if you are pursuing praise for your accomplishments in the office, be aware that you engaging in risky behavior. 

Why is it risky? Yes, a lack of self-promotion can be costly if people around us are unaware of the things we accomplished. At the same time, however, if we brag, we run the risk of appearing too arrogant. We all want to let everyone know that we are indeed “amazing,” “smart,” “attractive,” “popular,” “successful,” “accomplished” and so on; yet, we don’t want it to come across as sheer vanity. 

Given the difficulty of striking the right balance, we often seek to present our great attributes and qualities indirectly. One of the main forms of such self-presentation strategy is humblebragging, something we see in both social and professional settings:  

  • “Why do people hit on me even in my sweat pants?! It makes no sense.”
  • “It is so exhausting to keep up with all the interview requests from media outlets who find my work interesting.”  

We all have colleagues who too often update their social media and “casually” announce their achievements at the holiday party. Or consider how you yourself would answer one of the most common and dreaded job interview questions, “What’s your greatest weakness?” It is very likely that you’d respond with a humblebrag.  Or maybe you’ve heard someone else engaging in such a strength-as-weakness humblebrag:  

  • “I am such a perfectionist, and it is so hard to deal with.”
  • “My biggest weakness is — I work too hard.”
  • “I am so nice that people actually take advantage of me.”
  • “I am too demanding when it comes to fairness.”
  • “It’s just not fair that PeopleScience is the best website.” (Editor’s note: This cannot be confirmed at this time.) 

But why? Why do people humblebrag instead of just bragging? Research I conducted with Francesca Gino and Mike Norton shows that people think humblebragging is an effective strategy.  It seemingly allows them to highlight positive qualities while attempting to appear modest by masking these great things as a complaint or false humility. The desire to be liked and respected are fundamental motivators in any social interaction, and it seems that humblebragging may be the answer to the ultimate quandary of social life, as it may help people elicit liking and respect simultaneously, without seeming like a jerk.  

The desire to be liked and respected are fundamental motivators in any social interaction, and it seems that humblebragging may be the answer. 

In one study, we told participants that they would be interacting with a partner but we assigned them different interpersonal goals. We asked one group of participants to elicit sympathy, the other group to impress their counterpart, and finally the third group to elicit both sympathy and admiration — which is a common goal, as these fundamental strategic goals coexist and are fused in any social interaction. The results showed that when people seek sympathy, they choose to deploy complaints, and when seeking respect, they choose to brag, however when they aim to elicit both, their propensity to choose humblebragging increases dramatically. That is, people engage in humblebragging because they think it offers both sympathy and respect — the best of both worlds. 

But does humblebragging really offer the “sweet spot” for self-promotion? We have found that on the contrary, humblebragging actually backfires. Across a series of studies, we found that humblebragging does not lead to a favorable impression, because it seems insincere. In one experiment, we examined how people responded to a target who complains (“I am so exhausted”), who brags (“I get elected to leadership positions.”) or who humblebrags (“I am so exhausted from getting elected to leadership positions.”) We found that humblebraggers are less likeable than those who straightforwardly brag, or even those who just simply complain, because it comes across as fake. It turns out, perceived sincerity is another dimension that is critical to social evaluation, and we can prize sincerity even above liking and respect.  

On the contrary, humblebragging actually backfires … It turns out, perceived sincerity is another dimension that is critical to social evaluation 

What these results suggest is that our intuitions about what works for an effective self-promotion are often wrong. But if we are ever in doubt — about deciding whether to (honestly) brag or (deceptively) humblebrag, we should choose the former and at least seem as sincere.  

Is there a way to boast on the sly then? Can we effectively self-promote while avoiding its costs?

Research suggests that there are few things we can keep in mind.  

Self-promotion in response to a question is perceived to be more appropriate and favorable than direct bragging. One strategy that you can follow is to create contexts to boast by directing the conversation in a direction that makes it appropriate to highlight your accomplishment. You may try to raise a topic by asking a question that is relevant to the domain you are proud of, in the hopes that your counterpart will ask you the same question. 

Self-promotion in response to a question is perceived to be more appropriate and favorable than direct bragging. 

Previous research (like this and this) has also shown that self-promoters usually experience positive emotions and increased self-esteem, while underestimating targets’ annoyance and negative emotions. To avoid this emotional empathy gap, it is (scientifically) important to avoid explicit self-superiority claims (“I am a better friend than most people”) and brag with implicit claims (“I am a good friend)” to avoid social comparison with the listener. Another effective strategy is to keep your audience slightly distracted when you brag. Research by Alison Fragale and Adam Grant has shown that when the listeners were a little distracted, they were less likely to remember that the self-promoter was the source of the brag.  

What about broadcasting your own generosity? Can you actually brag about “being a good person”? Research shows that publicizing virtuous acts can be successful only if it is coming from individuals who are not expected to do so. If the audience already knows about the good deeds or expects the person to do them anyway, however, then bragging about virtuous acts and deeds can be costly. 

Publicizing virtuous acts can be successful only if it is coming from individuals who are not expected to do so. 

One of the most effective ways to bask in glory is to find a “wingman” to brag. When there is an intermediary, self-promoters seem innocent of all the praise, causing them to be seen as likeable and competent at the same time (see this and this). 

Together, these findings suggest that self-promotion is a delicate balancing act. Our intuitions about the right way to brag are often wrong. And successful self-promotion requires much more deliberate thought. 

Successful self-promotion requires much more deliberate thought. 

Hmmmm, maybe instead of editing (and reediting) that witty tweet that inevitably sounds like I’m humblebragging, I should just let my friends boast about how I wrote this article and encourage them to share it multiple times.  

I would do that, but it’s sooooo hard to keep up all my many, many good and famous friends.   

Sigh.

By Ovul Sezer
Ph.D. University of North Carolina

Subscribe

Get the latest behavioral
science insights.