The humblebrag as an identifiable self-presentation strategy has been around for only a few years. It’s possible that it evolved out of a true desire by its practitioners not to be offensive on social media, where words sit out there without body language to help neutralize any effects of a boast. In face-to-face interactions, you can adjust the impact of what you say based on the reaction it gets, but there's no place to hide in an online posting.
To help explain the humblebrag, if you're not already familiar with it, consider the following situation. Perhaps you’ve been invited to attend an exclusive charity event in recognition of your contributions to the cause. You’ll be given free tickets and the opportunity to hobnob with the elite. The event is a formal affair, and you’ll need to buy an outfit suitable for the occasion. If you were to engage in humblebragging on your social media feed, you would tell your friends about the invitation, while at the same time complaining about your need to get fancy duds in order to attend: "I got invited to the party of the year, but now what will I wear? I don't have anything nearly good enough in my closet! #imnotworthy." You’ve managed to show everyone how important you are, but with your complaint, you’re trying to appeal to their supposed sympathy for your plight. You're also appearing humble with that hashtag indicating you don’t know how you got the invitation to this event, which will undoubtedly include only the most important people in town.
Because the concept was identified only relatively recently, the humblebrag has attracted only a handful of studies. In their 2018 article, University of North Carolina researcher Ovul Sezer and Harvard University colleagues Francesca Gino and Michael Norton conducted an extensive nine-study investigation of humblebragging as a self-presentation strategy. Defining the humblebrag as a boast wrapped in humility or complaint, Sezer et al. noted that there’s nothing actually new about it at all. Their opening quote from Jane Austen (from, what else, Pride and Prejudice) shows that it’s been around a very long time: “Nothing is more deceitful than the appearance of humility. It is often only carelessness of opinion, and sometimes an indirect boast." What’s perhaps new is the increasing frequency with which it’s used as a self-presentation strategy, which suggests, in their words, “that people believe it will be effective,” but as they go on to demonstrate, “we suggest that it often backfires." The reason people humblebrag, they maintain, is to both emphasize their positive qualities and successes, while simultaneously attempting to elicit liking. The humblebragger recognizes that it’s hard to be liked and be a showoff at the same time.
The “Strategies in the Pursuit of Liking” that the UNC-Harvard researchers identify classify the humblebrag as a form of ingratiation in which you strategically try to influence other people to regard you as attractive and competent without disliking you for having these qualities. You do so by getting them to feel they need to boost your self-esteem (hence, the humility) or by soliciting sympathy (as a result of your complaining). Both of these strategies also promote the false sense that you’ve trusted others by confiding to them about your weaknesses and problems. The humblebrag, then, is an “other-focused” method that you use to elicit liking by getting people to see your strengths in a positive light without resenting the fact that you’re so successful. In this regard, the humblebrag is also a “Strategy in Pursuit of Respect,” because it draws attention to your accomplishments, albeit in a circuitous fashion.
Across their series of studies, Sezer et al. examined the natural ecology of humblebragging as it occurs in everyday life. An online sample provided their own instances of the times they were exposed to humblebragging, responding to examples such as “I work so fast that I am bored the rest of the day,” and “Why do people hit on me even without makeup?” The fact that this is a ubiquitous feature of daily life was revealed by the fact that 70 percent of participants could report at least one instance. Most humblebrags were couched in terms of complaints (59 percent), and included topics such as money and wealth among various other personal attributes, such as attractiveness, intelligence, personality, and the like. A money and wealth complaint, for example, was “It’s so hard to choose between Lexus and BMW.” Humility-based humblebrags were most often focused on looks and attractiveness (“I don’t understand why every customer compliments me on my looks”).
Participants also reported on instances of humblebragging in a diary study, which relied not on memories of past instances, but on recollections of the behavior each day. Humblebrags were more frequent on Mondays than Fridays (maybe reflecting some kind of weekend effect), but also were very common, and 92 percent reported at least one instance during the week. Most humblebrags were complaint-based, and their content was similar to that observed in the one-shot investigation.
Turning next to the question of the social costs of humblebragging versus straightforward bragging, the authors conducted an innovative experiment in which a research assistant solicited signatures from students in local coffee shops for a petition for a student-run food truck to be allowed on campus. In the humblebrag condition, the researcher dropped a humblebrag into the conversation about having to face the “unpleasant” choice between a great summer internship or a full funding to study in Paris. In the plain bragging condition, she stated that she received these opportunities without framing this as a complaint. Humblebragging resulted, as the authors predicted, with students being less willing to sign the petition (65 percent) than in straightforward bragging (86 percent).
Which method of humblebragging, if any, might be most effective? When you talk about your invitation to the exclusive party, will your complaint or your hashtag sway your followers? Sezer et al.’s next series of studies investigated the effectiveness of these two strategies versus each other and compared both to straight bragging. An online sample rated a variety of statements representing these three self-presentation approaches.
See what you think of these examples:
“My attempt at wearing pants so I won’t get hit on is failing miserably.” (complaint-based)
“I just received a reward for my teaching!?!? #whaaaaaaat?” (humility-based)
Compare the above two statements with straightforward bragging:
“I am getting hit on.”
“I won a teaching award.”
Of the two forms of humblebragging, the complaint-based were viewed more negatively than the humility-based, but neither were viewed as positively as statements reflecting simple bragging. The critical factor differentiating these strategies was sincerity. People don’t like braggers, but they at least see them as more sincere than humblebraggers. When invited to that exclusive charity event, these results suggest you should just state the facts outright if you feel the need to share your good news.
Additional studies examined the antecedents of humblebragging; in other words, why do people engage in this strategy at all? Many situations in life involve either complaining or bragging. The humblebrag, the authors discovered, occurs when people try to elicit both sympathy and admiration. Unfortunately, as the findings revealed, this produces the opposite effects. Humblebraggers are rated as less likable and competent than complainers, braggarts, or people simply expressing humility, because they seem insincere. You may think this is an effective strategy, but these results indicate that, in the words of the authors, “people readily denigrate humblebraggers.”
It’s possible that even though you dislike seeing humblebragging in others, you feel that you’ve got no choice but to model the behavior of people in your network who use this strategy. The Harvard-UNC study suggests you need to fight off this impulse. Engaging in self-presentation strategies that help make people like you can help you achieve the fulfillment of good relationships and success in your work life. Knowing how to avoid the trap of the humblebrag will make it possible for you to achieve that fulfillment.
Sezer, O., Gino, F., & Norton, M. I. (2018). Humblebragging: A distinct—and ineffective—self-presentation strategy. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 114(1), 52-74. doi:10.1037/pspi0000108