Think twice before you brag about your accomplishments — and if you do, you better have the goods to back it up, a new study suggests.
The research, which was published recently in the journal Self and Identity, found that people respond better to modest individuals than to braggarts. When people did boast, the study found that their self-promotions were received better by others if they were supported by evidence.
“If you want to present yourself in a positive way and talk about your accolades, then it’s really helpful to have external information or some sort of objective corroboration of how good you are at something,” says study co-author Erin O’Mara, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Dayton. And according to the findings of the study, people will like you even more “if you undersell yourself a little bit and describe yourself in a modest way.”
O’Mara and her colleagues modeled their study after one conducted in 1982 by psychologists Mark Leary and Barry Schlenker. That paper found that people respond better to boasting when there’s evidence to back up the claims, and better still when someone “modestly underestimated a clearly superior prior performance.”
But the original research was published well before the rise of social media and the culture of boasting and bragging it often promotes. “People are showing higher levels of self-esteem and narcissism than their parents’ generation before,” O’Mara says. “We thought perhaps those shifts might influence the way people react.”
They designed a new study to find out, running two similar but separate experiments. In both, study participants were presented with either a self-promotional statement (“I am a better person to be friends with than others” or “I am smarter than other students”) or a self-equalizing statement (“I am as good a person to be friends with as others” or “I am as smart as other students”). Next, some were given information that either corroborated or refuted that information — like another person’s testimony, or school records — while others were given no secondary information at all.
Just as in the original work, the researchers found that people responded better to brags when they were accurate, rather than false or ambiguous. O’Mara says talking about your own accomplishments, rather than comparing your performance to others’, may also boost your perception by others.
Overall, though, study participants looked most favorably upon modest people: those who made a self-equalizing statement, even when outside information suggested they were either smarter or friendlier than others. This result, the researchers say, suggests that social media hasn’t eroded our cultural preference for modesty.
Don’t take that as an excuse to humblebrag, which research has shown won’t win you any friends. Co-author Benjamin Kunz, who is also an associate professor of psychology at the University of Dayton, says there’s a distinction between humblebragging — disguising boasts as modesty to appear more likable — and talking about your accomplishments in a way that is truly self-effacing.
“With humblebragging, there’s an attempt to self-promote by making these falsely humble claims. There was no sort of underlying or hidden motivation to appear humble” in the present study, Kunz says. It probably helps if people learn the full extent of your good qualities through a third-party source, as they did in the new study, Kunz adds.
All in all, O’Mara says the findings should give pause to chronic social media (or in-person) braggarts.
“Self-presentation is really tricky. You have to walk a fine line in terms of presenting yourself as being competent but not too braggy,” O’Mara says. “It’s helpful to know what the implications could be for how people are perceiving things.”
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Write to Jamie Ducharme at firstname.lastname@example.org