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On Bragging Rights (and Wrongs)

Why is subtle self-promotion so common? New studies try to explain bragging

Ryan McGuire/Stocksnap
Source: Ryan McGuire/Stocksnap

The Psychology Today editorial team certainly run a tight ship. They provide lots of support for bloggers, a blogging platform that invariably works, and editorial guidance instructions that couldn't be clearer. Like the one about bragging: PT bloggers are not supposed to engage in it. In one of their FAQ responses for authors, the editors make the point with admirable conciseness. 'Please refrain from blatant self-promotion,' they require. Yes, that's pretty clear alright.

I like their use of the term 'blatant.' It is as though they realise a certain amount of self-promotion is going to be unavoidable. 'Just don't be blatant' is their advice.

But what about self-promotion that is subtle, discreet, or heavily camouflaged? Well, call me pedantic, but my reading of the stricture is that that type of bragging is okay.

Of course the interesting thing is that, in human communication, the vast majority of self-promotion is quite deliberately subtle, discreet, and heavily camouflaged. Most boasts are delivered surreptitiously, most allusions to achievement slipped in as incidental. Most modern vanity is lit on a slow burn.

In today's parlance, in other words, most brags are humble. The so-called humblebrag (or #humblebrag) is a now so well recognized a phenomenon of modern communication that in 2014, the Oxford English Dictionary listed humblebrag as an official word (their definition: 'an ostensibly modest or self-deprecating statement whose actual purpose is to draw attention to something of which one is proud').

Classics in the genre are frequently to be seen on Twitter, and have been immortalized in a plethora of listicles. Here are four of my favorite specimens:

Musician: "It always feels a little odd to me when I get recognized randomly in public. I never know what to say. I'm glad it doesn't happen often."

Celebrity: "I just stepped on gum. Who spits gum on a red carpet?"

Writer: "The fact that Wikipedia lists me as a notable alumnus of my college speaks ill of the reliability of crowd sourced information."

CEO: "I just did something very selfless. But more importantly, it was genuine & I know it means a lot to the person in the long run #soworthit"

So rather than trying to extinguish self-promotion altogether, Psychology Today are correct to urge bloggers to strive for humility in their bragging. The research literature shows us that bragging is an integral feature of human interaction, with many theorists attributing its presence to a range of evolutionary pressures.

In one brand new study, recently published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, a tendency for self-promotion was found to be linked to sexual promiscuity. Respondents who identified themselves in a survey as being dispositionally prone to self-promotion were more likely to also report engagement in 'short-term mating' (the authors' term, not mine). Meanwhile, respondents who exhibited less boastfulness were relatively more demure.

This link may help explain why people engage in boasting even though it risks coming across negatively to audiences. Another contributor is the fact that we are generally poor at emotional perspective-taking. Other recent research suggests we over-estimate the extent to which people will be made happy by our successes, because we over-generalize our own happiness to our interaction partners.

It seems that bragging dates back to our stone age past, provokes us sexually, and addles our modern brains. Hmmmm...

In other news, I have a new book coming out. It's really good! (You can check the sidebar for details.) I write about the strengths and weaknesses of science in psychology, reviewing examples of poor epistemology in the behavioral sciences. In one section, for example, I challenge the tenuous use of evolutionary frameworks to rationalize findings of what are essentially questionnaire-based social survey studies. (Now I wonder what put that in mind?)

Was that blatant? It wasn't meant to be.

(As country singer Mac Davis once sang, "Oh Lord it's hard to be humble -- when you're perfect in every way…")

Koban, K., & Ohler, P. (2016). Ladies, know yourselves! Gentlemen, fool yourselves! Evolved self-promotion traits as predictors for promiscuous sexual behaviour in both sexes. Personality and Individual Differences, 92, 11-15.

More from Brian M. Hughes Ph.D.
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