Humblebragging: A Distinct – And Ineffective – Self-Presentation Strategy

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Humblebragging: A Distinct – And Ineffective – Self-Presentation Strategy by SSRN

Ovul Sezer

Harvard Business School

Francesca Gino

Harvard University – Harvard Business School

Michael I. Norton

Harvard Business School – Marketing Unit

April 20, 2015

Harvard Business School Marketing Unit Working Paper No. 15-080

Harvard Business School NOM Unit Working Paper No. 15-080


Humblebragging – bragging masked by a complaint – is a distinct and, given the rise of social media, increasingly ubiquitous form of self-promotion. We show that although people often choose to humblebrag when motivated to make a good impression, it is an ineffective self-promotional strategy. Five studies offer both correlational and causal evidence that humblebragging has both global costs – reducing liking and perceived sincerity – and specific costs: it is even ineffective in signaling the specific trait that that a person wants to promote. Moreover, humblebragging is less effective than simply complaining, because complainers are at least seen as sincere. Despite people’s belief that combining bragging and complaining confers the benefits of both self-promotion strategies, humblebragging fails to pay off.

Humblebragging: A Distinct – And Ineffective – Self-Presentation Strategy – Introduction

Thanks to social media, we are frequently confronted with a particular type of selfpromotion: “Hair’s not done, just rolled out of bed from a nap and still get hit on, so confusing!” and “Graduating from 2 universities means you get double the calls asking for money/donations. So pushy and annoying!” Such instances of “humblebragging” allow actors to highlight positive qualities while attempting to appear humble by masking it in a complaint; in the second example above, note how the brag (I have two university degrees) is couched in a complaint (getting calls is annoying). While people humblebrag to make a good impression on others without appearing vain, we suggest that humblebragging frequently fails. In fact, because observers find the strategy insincere, humblebraggers are less likeable than those who straightforwardly brag – or even those who simply complain.

Humblebragging to Manage Others’ Impressions

An extensive body of research demonstrates people’s motivation to manage the impressions they make (Jones & Pittman, 1982; Leary & Kowalski, 1990). People wish to be viewed positively (Baumeister, 1982; Schlenker, 1980) and attend closely to how they present themselves in social interactions (Goffman, 1959). A commonly used impression-management strategy is self-promotion, which allows individuals to bring their good qualities to others’ attention (Jones & Pittman, 1982; Leary et al., 1994).

At the same time, successful impression management can be a balancing act. Because modesty is a highly valued quality (Ben-Ze’ew, 1993; Schneider, 1969; Wosinka, Dabul, Whetstone-Dion, & Cialdini, 1996), self-promotion efforts such as bragging can backfire: people who brag may be perceived as conceited (Powers & Zuroff, 1988; Tice, Butler, Muraven, & Stillwell, 1995). Therefore, people often seek to present their qualities and accomplishments indirectly (Schlenker & Weigold, 1992); for instance, people may glorify the accomplishments of and give credit to others (Cialdini, Finch, & DeNicholas, 1990; Tetlock, 1980). We suggest that humblebragging is an understudied yet ubiquitous indirect strategy that attempts to mask a brag in the guise of a complaint. Used correctly, complaining can be an effective means of eliciting sympathy and attention from others (Alberts, 1988; Alicke et al., 1992), such that combining bragging and complaining may offer a “sweet spot” for self-promotion.

We suggest, however, that humblebragging is ineffective. Prior research has shown that the success of an impression-management strategy depends on whether actors are able to mask their ulterior motive of being viewed positively (Eastman, 1994; Giacalone & Rosenfeld, 1986; Jones & Pittman, 1982) – and complaining, used incorrectly, has just such potential to backfire (Kowalski, 1996). When observers believe that actors’ primary goal is making a favorable impression, such actors are considered insincere; perceived sincerity is a critical factor in determining the success of self-promotion (Crant, 1996; Nguyen, Seers, & Hartman, 2008; Turnley & Bolino; 2001). As a result, we hypothesized that humblebragging – attempting to mask a brag with a complaint – generates negative impressions because the strategy seems insincere.

Overview of the Research

We test our predictions in five studies. We first asked raters to evaluate tweets from a dataset of humblebrags from Twitter, assessing whether the more raters view a tweet as humblebragging, the less they liked the humblebragger (Study 1a). In Study 1b, we analyzed answers to the question “What is your biggest weakness?” in job interview contexts to document the commonality of humblebragging, and its effectiveness in the eyes of observers. In Study 2, we explore the mechanisms underlying humblebragging, testing whether humblebraggers are liked less than complainers and braggers because they are seen as less sincere. We then examine whether humblebragging may even give a weaker impression of a desired trait than straightforward bragging (Study 3), and whether people’s dislike of humblebraggers extends to less generous behavior toward them (Study 4).

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