Your false modesty isn’t fooling anyone, according to a new study from researchers at Harvard and the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.
Humblebragging — defined as “bragging masked by a complaint or humility” — actually makes people like you less than straight-up self-promotion, the research says. The findings were published recently in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
“It’s such a common phenomenon. All of us know some people in our lives, whether in social media or in the workplace, who do this annoying thing,” says study author Ovul Sezer, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. “You think, as the humblebragger, that it’s the best of both worlds, but what we show is that sincerity is actually the key ingredient.”
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Sezer and her team conducted a series of experiments to determine how common humblebragging is and how others perceive it. They found that humblebragging is everywhere: Out of 646 people surveyed, 70% could recall a humblebrag they’d heard recently.
Next, they established that there are two distinct types of humblebrags. The first falls back on a complaint (“I hate that I look so young; even a 19-year-old hit on me!”) while the second relies on humility (“Why do I always get asked to work on the most important assignment?”). About 60% of the humblebrags people remembered fell into the complaint category.
The researchers then carried out experiments to see how people responded to humblebrags, with a particular focus on the bragger’s perceived likability and competence. They found that regular bragging was better on both counts, because it at least comes off as genuine, Sezer says. Even complainers were more likable and seemed more competent than humblebraggers of any type.
“If you want to announce something, go with the brag and at least own your self-promotion and reap the rewards of being sincere, rather than losing in all dimensions,” Sezer says.
Better yet, she says, get somebody else to “wingman” your boasting. “If someone brags for you, that’s the best thing that can happen to you, because then you don’t seem like you’re bragging,” Sezer says.
And if you can, cut humblebraggers a little slack — because you may be doing it yourself without realizing it. “We all do it, to some extent,” Sezer says. “I hope I don’t sound like I’m humblebragging when I talk about this research.”