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Why It's OK to Share Your Success

Being open about one’s successes—and failures—can come with surprising benefits.

Marzacz/iStock
Marzacz/iStock

Braggarts are obnoxious—and to avoid looking like one, people often refrain from sharing their successes with those around them. But recent research suggests that hiding one’s wins may come with significant social costs.

In the first of eight studies, 82 percent of participants reported hiding a success from a loved one, coworker, or stranger, often out of a desire to avoid bragging. But how did others feel when someone hid a success from them? In subsequent studies, people tended to feel more insulted and patronized by someone who, they learned, had withheld an achievement—such as a college acceptance—compared with someone who shared it. And secrecy came with relational consequences: Those who had a success hidden from them, rather than shared, felt less close to the secret-keepers and were less inclined to trust or collaborate with them.

Hiders feared that sharing would trigger envy; they weren’t wrong. Targets who were directly told of someone’s success felt more envious than those who had it hidden from them but found out another way. But envy often coincided with greater happiness for the communicator. “People underestimate the extent to which others experience mixed emotions, such as envy and closeness,” says the lead author Annabelle Roberts , a University of Chicago Ph.D. student. Such miscalculations could do more harm than envy alone.

Sharing the Load

Is it OK, at least, to conceal one’s failures? A second paper suggests that this too may be costly. In five studies, participants were significantly less likely to share failures with others than they were to share successes or neutral outcomes, in both in-lab experiments and when recalling real professional experiences.

This reluctance to share appeared to be due to participants’ overlooking the valuable information that can be gleaned from failure. Even when in-lab experiments were specifically designed so that admitting failure was objectively more helpful to other participants than sharing success, they were still less likely to confess to slip-ups. However, deliberately highlighting the lessons that can be extracted from failure by both oneself and others—like information on how to win a game, for example—made participants more willing to share.

“Failure stings, so we don’t want to think about it,” says study author Ayelet Fishbach , also of the University of Chicago. But if you don’t stop to think about something, she notes, it’s hard to extract important information from it.

Reframing failure may help someone see its value. “If you take it as an indication that you are a failure,” she says, it may be too painful to examine and learn from. “But if you think about failure simply as a setback, then you’re likely to say, ‘What can I do differently?’”