Science Shows Humblebragging Doesn’t Even Work

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Humblebragging is irritating; this, you know. But the truth about that special, noxious blend of whining and boasting is that it also doesn’t even appear to work the way that humblebraggarts think it does, in that it doesn’t successfully get the intended message across, according to a new working paper from a team of Harvard Business School researchers. Sometimes, you’re better off just regular-bragging.

The researchers, Ovul Sezer, Francesca Gino, and Michael I. Norton, tested people’s perception of humblebragging across five separate experiments. In one, they asked 302 people to imagine the person who said one of three statements: a complaint (“I am so bored”), a brag (“People mistake me for a model”), or a humblebrag (“I am so bored of people mistaking me for a model”). They were then asked to rate how much they liked this person, judging from this one statement, and how sincere the person seemed.

Overall, the study participants liked the complainers the best, and then the braggers; in last place, perhaps not surprisingly, were the humblebraggers. The participants also rated the complainers as most sincere and the humblebraggers as least sincere, which gets at one reason humblebragging is so obnoxious: It comes off as inauthentic.

In another experiment, the researchers showed that humblebragging isn’t an effective way to get your point across when compared to straightforward bragging. To test this, they had 201 people either read a brag (“I get hit on all the time”) or a humblebrag (“Just rolled out of bed and still get hit on all the time, so annoying.”); each group was asked to rate how attractive they’d guess the person behind the statement was. The findings showed that people consistently rated humblebraggers as less attractive than the braggers — 4.34 out of 7 for the humblebraggers, as compared to 4.91 for the braggers (a significant difference, though admittedly not a huge one). 

Humblebragging, then, the researchers conclude, a self-promotion strategy you’re better off avoiding. “Faced with the choice to (honestly) brag or (deceptively) humblebrag,” they write, “would-be self-promoters should choose the former — and at least reap the rewards of seeming sincere.”