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Mariana Plata

The Psychology of Humblebragging

Evidence shows that straightforward bragging is seen as more sincere.

Photo by Alex Holyoake on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Alex Holyoake on Unsplash

"Ugh, it's so annoying! I've lost so much weight that none of my clothes fit me anymore!"

"Don't you just hate it when you go somewhere and they can't break a $100 for you?"

"OMG! I hate hearing my voice on TV!"

What do all of these phrases have in common? They are all examples of humblebragging. A term coined by Harris Wittels, a comedic writer who wrote for shows including Parks and Recreation, humblebragging refers to "a specific type of boast that allows the offender to broadcast their achievements without the necessary shame and guilt that should normally accompany such claims." In simpler terms, it's a way to disguise a brag with some humility.

So, if we analyze each of the examples presented above we can identify how the underlying "complaint" is actually a brag. Whether it's body image, money, fame, or recognition. Humblebragging is sneaking into our lives way more frequently than before, thanks to social media. What was only said while at a party or a get-together with friends, is now being broadcasted to everyone with just a quick post.

Irony aside, the term "humblebrag" is nothing more than a "seemingly" easier way to brag about your achievements to those closest to you. I write "seemingly" because evidence actually suggests that people respond to straightforward bragging much better than complaint-based bragging. Why do we keep doing it, though? Why does it bother us so much? How can we use self-awareness to minimize the humblebragging effect?

Why do we humblebrag?

If I could summarize the reason as to why I think we humblebrag so often, I would choose only one word: shame. We humblebrag to avoid this unpleasant feeling that lurks over us. Brené Brown, a pioneer in shame and resilience research, explains shame as the sensation that "something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection." We disguise our bragging of something we have with fake humility because we have been taught to hide our successes.

A recent study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, showed that people choose to humblebrag as an attempt to impress others. We often rely on this tactic as a way to enhance our self-presentation and, ultimately, to have others respect us and view us in a more positive light. While we do need to rely on quite a bit of self-promotion to make others aware of our competences, humblebraggers are known for mixing that self-promotion with humility or complaint.

The results in this study showed that people perceive humblebragging not only as insincere, but less effective than just straightforward bragging and/or complaining. According to this study, people who rely on this strategy do so to gain more likability and respect from others. However, in reality, they spark the complete opposite from recipients. What to do? The authors of the study conclude with the following statement: "faced with the choice to (honestly) brag or (deceptively) humblebrag, would-be self-promoters should choose the former— and at least reap the rewards of seeming sincere."

Why does it bother us and what can we do?

I remember seeing an Instagram caption from a person trying to raise awareness about infertility which said: "While I've never gone through that myself because I've been cursed with being overly fertile..." If I didn't have people close to me who struggle with infertility, I wouldn't have read this the same way. But, because I did, I took this humblebrag (disguising a privilege as a "curse") as it was: insincere and insensitive.

The nature of humblebragging bothers people on different levels. And it all depends on their own personal history with whatever is being "not-bragged" about. For instance, someone going through infertility might be (rightfully) bothered by the example presented above. Whereas, someone struggling with money might resent a humblebrag about this issue. It bothers us because it triggers a personal struggle we might have. And that's where the action plan to stop the humblebrag starts: honoring our own emotional triggers and those around us.

If we are able to recognize our emotional triggers, we can separate ourselves from the negative feelings that will undoubtedly arise when someone humblebrags. It can prevent us from falling into the comparison trap. More importantly, if we can empathize with the emotional triggers of other people, then we can be more respectful towards our closed ones' personal struggles.

As for the bragging portion? There's a fine line between celebrating your successes and bragging. The first one is authentically owning what you've achieved, and the hard work that's taken for you to get there. But don't try to disguise them based on shame or competition. Own your successes and flaunt them. Because if you've worked hard to achieve something, you are allowed to flaunt it shamelessly, but always balancing it off with empathy and compassion.

About the Author

Mariana Plata is a psychologist, educator, and mental health writer based in Panama.