Sarah Cotterill, PhD

The Science of Adversity

Why No One Likes a Humblebragger

Feel a need to promote yourself? Just do it, research advises, without the games

Posted Aug 18, 2016

Milles Studio/Shutterstock
Source: Milles Studio/Shutterstock

You've likely encountered the humblebrag before—boasting disguised as a complaint, such as: 

“It's so annoying to be hit on. Men need to get a life.”

"I'm tired of people mistaking me for a model."

“I’m having such a stressful day. I got two job offers and I don’t know what to do.”

(For the masochistic, there is actually a whole Twitter feed devoted to these gaffes.)

Psychologists have taken notice of the humblebrag, as well, and have begun conducting research that provides insight as to why people engage in the habit. One interesting paper by researchers at Harvard Business School suggests that people see humblebragging as a potentially profitable self-presentation strategy—one that will allow them to convey how smart, attractive, or funny, they are, while still seeming modest. (A linguistic boon!) 

But there is a problem with this approach: People still find it off-putting. In one study, psychologists found that the more people rated tweets as high in humble-bragging (e.g., “Graduating from two universities means you get double the calls asking for money. So pushy and annoying!”), the less likely they were to like the person who made the statement.

In a second study, they examined a context ripe for humblebragging—the infamous job interview question, "What is your biggest weakness?" Participants were asked how they would answer that question if it were posed to them in an interview. Independent raters then scored the responses, indicating the perceived degree of humblebragging in each—and how likely they would be to hire the candidate. 

Consistent with predictions, most participants chose to humblebrag ("I'm a perfectionist at times; it is so hard!"), rather than report a genuine weakness. But perhaps more important, independent raters indicated they were less interested in hiring humblebraggers than those who'd given more straightforward responses. 

And evidence in a third study shows that humblebragging is so off-putting that people like humblebraggers less than pure complainers and pure braggers. Why? Because they are seen as less genuine and sincere.

If there is one potential upside, it might be the possibility that people don't care much for humblebraggers, but nonetheless think of them as high in whatever quality is at the heart of the bragging. We might dislike someone who complains about getting into two universities, but still see them as smart. And yet, the findings of a fourth study suggest that humblebraggers may be less successful than pure braggers at conveying the quality they want others to see in them.

Taken together, the implication is that attempts at self-promotion fail if people sense you’re going about them in a disingenuous way.

We might also wonder why we resent disingenuity so much in the first place. One answer has to do with evolution: Our ancestors had to be very savvy in figuring out who was likely to cooperate with them versus who might cheat or be looking for a free ride. If they were accurate in their perceptions—cooperating with people who later cooperated with them—both parties could do better than they would on their own.  

But if they made a mistake (e.g., if they shared their food with someone who later kept all of his own catch for himself), they’d be worse off than they were on their own (and that other person would be even better off than he’d have been on his own). Thus, evolution has selected for faculties that allow us to pick up on people who aren’t necessarily forthcoming and honest—our brains are designed to notice and dislike disingenuous people. 

The lesson here is that if you’re in a situation in which self-promotion is built into the nature of the task (a job interview), or one where it would help (professional networking), go about it in a straightforward manner. And note that straightforward doesn’t have to be off-putting. Statements like, “I am grateful to have been able to achieve X” or “I was fortunate enough to get Y” allow us to express gratitude, a quality people actually like in others, while still making clear our accomplishments.

References

  • Cosmides, L. and Tooby, J. (2005) Neurocognitive adaptations designed for social exchange. Evolutionary Psychology Handbook (Buss, D.M., ed.), Wiley.
  • Sezer, O., Gino, F., and Norton, M. Humblebragging: A Distinct—and Ineffective—Self-Presentation Strategy. Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 15-080, April 2015.
  • Watkins, P. C., Van Gelder, M., & Frias, A. (2009). Furthering the Science of Gratitude. Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology, 437.

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