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Extreme Modesty: The Case of the Disappearing Self

There is a point at which ingratiation is corrosive, and women too often find it.

Self-sabotage can show up in the strangest places. Take the recent neuroscience lecture in New York, which was followed by the customary question and answer period. Eventually, the speaker announced there was time for only two more questions, and a female neuroscientist, probably in her late 30s, wound up with the last slot. But instead of asking her question straightaway, she fell into what might best be described as a self-effacing dance. "Oh my gosh," she said, curling around the microphone stand as if to disappear into it, "I'm the last questioner. I feel almost guilty." She declared her near-guilt again before posing her question. I forgot the question. But the prologue was memorable—it made the audience squirm.

Self-effacing behavior so situationally inappropriate it arouses acute discomfort in utter strangers could be thought of as an extreme form of modesty. Or a public eruption of low self-esteem. Still, it's not an indictable offense. But as much as addiction or procrastination, it can be a self-made obstacle to achieving one's goals.

It's a common affliction of bright women, observes psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson, pointing to research showing they sabotage themselves because they are particularly prone to erroneous beliefs about their own abilities. They regard their abilities as fixed and innate because as girls they were praised for being "so smart."

As a result, says Halvorson, they are quick to lose confidence. "They grow up to be women too preoccupied with proving—to themselves and everybody else—that they have ability. When we fear our ability will be judged lacking"—say, standing in the spotlight at a microphone—"we resort to self-sabotaging behaviors, like self-handicapping, self-effacement, opting out of challenging experiences." The more a woman's ability is tied to her self-worth, the more behavior becomes self-sabotaging in the face of insecurity.

It's ironic, Halvorson notes. Being praised for smartness as girls, women feel pressured to continuously provide evidence for that smartness, which undermines performance. Looking for evidence of self-worth in the eyes of others, "we just end up embarrassing ourselves and perpetuating the stereotype of women as weaker and less capable than men."

Under normal conditions, self-effacement is a facet of modesty and a tactic of impression management. It does not automatically imply a lack of confidence or of self-esteem. It commonly reflects cultural norms; collectivist cultures, such as in China and Japan, consider modesty a virtue. Self-effacing tactics reduce the social risk of offending others.

But Western cultures of individualism emphasize the need to present the self as unique and independent. Even so, men and women engage in self-enhancing strategies only among strangers, when we need to give unknown others a quick sense of who we are.

"With strangers, it is appropriate and desirable to point out one's good traits because the information is otherwise unavailable and may figure centrally in how the audience judges the self-presenter," psychologist Dianne Tice and colleagues observe in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. In fact, they found, this is our default mode. "These are the habitual and automatic ways of acting."

With friends, with whom there is the expectation of future interaction, we automatically lean to modesty and under-represent our positive traits. After all, friends know our finer points. And we want to maintain the affective bond.

Egotism, explains Florida State University psychologist Roy Baumeister, "is socially disruptive. It fosters a sense of entitlement. It makes it harder for groups to negotiate conflict and apportion rewards. Groups function better to the extent that people can restrain their narcissism."

Sometimes, however, self-effacement goes beyond modesty to reflect low self-esteem. But whatever its source, many researchers find, modesty has one overriding cost. Self-effacing individuals (in any culture) are generally better-liked —but they are also seen as less competent than self-enhancing folk. Observers consistently evaluate their performance on tasks less favorably. That's when it becomes self-defeating.

"There is an absolutely corrosive false modesty associated with femininity," says Regina Barreca. "It calls attention to itself by saying, 'I'm the last one, I should really let someone else go.' But it also says, 'Look at me. I'm just a girl doing this.'" The University of Connecticut English professor dubs it "a weird hyperfemininity even as it's a diminishment of being a woman. We do this to ourselves—we mark ourselves different from the rest of humanity by calling attention to our gender, preemptively asking for special treatment." What in fact a last speaker should be doing is using the time well.

It's bad enough, Barreca notes, that women incur harm from such behavior because traditional thinking still equates femininity with inability, and extreme modesty spurs judgments of diminished competence. But the damage is compounded in individualistic societies because self-effacement fuels the negative stereotype that women are prone to use their sex to gain advantage. All self-defeating behavior harms the doer. It's a unique form of self-sabotage that hurts a whole gender in the process.

Cringe Benefits

Recent history offers up a rich array of cringe-generating moments, all of them self-inflicted by folk in the perpetual spotlight of celebrity.

  • Alec Baldwin. In April 2007, the actor dialed his 11-year-old daughter, who was living with his ex-wife, Kim Basinger. When she didn't answer, Baldwin raged into her voice mail, calling her a "rude, thoughtless little pig." Basinger leaked the recording to the press, and it was broadcast worldwide, compelling Baldwin to issue a public apology.

  • Sarah Palin. During the 2008 presidential election campaign, the Republican vice presidential candidate was unable to come up with an answer to reporter Katie Couric's simple inquiry into which newspapers and magazines she reads. "Um, all of them, any of them that have been in front of me all these years," she said as America squirmed.

  • Kanye West. At the 2009 Video Music Awards, the rapper and record producer stormed onto the stage—and seized the microphone from ingenue Taylor Swift during her acceptance speech for Best Female Video—to say that Beyonce should have won instead. The audience, stunned into silence, applauded only when he left the stage.