"Accomplish but do not boast." —Lao Tzu
A few weeks ago, while checking my LinkedIn feed, I was shocked to see a post from a well-known marketing professor that was nothing more than a blatant boast. It went something like this: “I have X thousand citations on Google Scholar. I am one of the most-cited academics in the field.” The post didn’t offer anything of substance or insight. Its subtext was, “Admire me. I am amazing. My research is more cited than anyone else’s.” The post diminished my opinion of this individual considerably.
Unfortunately, when I started looking for boast posts after this, I found they were abundant. My social media feeds are apparently chock full of people bragging frequently. Boast posts typically begin with phrases like “I am so humbled to…,” “I am so proud to…,” etc., and then go on to describe an accomplishment boastfully.
What exactly is bragging? Sharing positive events and achievements from our life, per se, is good to do and supports our happiness. When we inform close family and friends, or even acquaintances, about a job promotion, an engagement, or the arrival of a new child, we provide useful positive knowledge about ourselves that increases everyone’s happiness. It is when the sharing is done not to share happiness, but mainly to arouse jealousy, envy, or other negative emotions and doesn’t have any useful, informative purpose for the audience that it becomes dysfunctional. When bragging, the information you share and the people you share it with both matter.
In the professional context, for instance, if someone posts on LinkedIn that they have a paper coming out in a prestigious journal along with its abstract, it is useful to readers, even strangers. On the other hand, randomly posting that you have thousands of citations on Google Scholar doesn’t help anyone. (What can an average reader do with this information?)
This got me wondering why someone so successful would resort to boast posting in this way. What did they hope to accomplish? What tangible or psychological benefits can such bragging possibly provide? And on the flip side, what harm does posting boasts cause? I want to focus on this last question about the negative consequences of social-media boasting.
More than anything, bragging conveys powerful negative trait information about the sender. We don’t necessarily need modern psychology to make this point. Shakespeare pointed it out as well as anyone over four centuries ago in All’s Well That Ends Well, when Parolles observed, “Who knows himself a braggart, let him fear this, for it will come to pass that every braggart shall be found an ass.” Of course, the major problem with braggarts is that they usually don't know they are braggarts (or asses).
Numerous studies corroborate Shakespeare. In a nutshell, people don’t like braggarts and find them to be annoying, a phenomenon called the “hubris hypothesis.” This dislike is based on the inference that the braggart has a negative view of everyone around them. Returning to the famous marketing professor, the “I am better than you” subtext embedded in his boast post about his citations communicates an implicit dislike, disrespect, or even contempt for readers.
Recent research shows that such audience beliefs are not misplaced. Those who are prone to bragging do have undesirable traits. As psychologists Cara Palmer and her colleagues explain in the results of their recent study:
Bragging, even when in conjunction with other forms of sharing, was related to more undesirable traits … Individuals who tended to brag when they shared their positive events were more likely to be men, reported less agreeableness, less conscientiousness, and less empathy, whereas those who tended to brag and mass-share reported the highest levels of narcissism.
No surprises here; this is exactly what you would expect. (And yes, that braggart marketing professor was a man.)
What is worse, bragging attracts ingratiators, who are typically lower in status and have ulterior motives in forming or maintaining a relationship with the braggart. In other words, if you want to gather an entourage around you, bragging is an efficient way to achieve this.
Finally, consider this: On social media, where your boast may be seen by hundreds or thousands of people with all degrees of relationships with you — some close, others marginal — there is no way to ascertain the amount of harm that a poorly worded or over-the-top boast can do to your reputation.
However, I should also note there is one interesting upside to bragging. Some studies show that those who brag are seen as more competent, which is one of the main reasons why people brag in the first place. But this is the case when people don’t have other information about the braggart. On LinkedIn and other social media platforms, others can obtain a detailed listing of a person’s accomplishments, so it is not clear that bragging elevates our perceptions of competence in this context.
My main conclusion is this: We all self-promote on social media to a lesser or greater degree. After all, it feels like we broadcast to the world whatever is on our minds. Many times, we want to communicate our expertise, our competence, and our strengths—our place in the world, so to speak—especially where our work is concerned. But we should be careful about how we do this. We should seek to maximize the information and value we provide to those reading our feeds instead of using the spotlight to brag aimlessly.