So…this post started off as an article about some recent research on why we like the music we do. And how some of it is related to the persona of the musician, and not just the music itself. Which I thought was pretty interesting, because it seems to speak to the importance of letting more of our personalities shine through in social media, on stage, and backstage, instead of presenting only the highly polished, sanitized, “professional” version of ourselves.
But somehow, that led me to Parks and Recreation writer Haris Wittels’ best-of humblebrag lists (like this one)…
Which then prompted a search to see if there might be any research on humblebragging…
Which led me to discover that there actually is some research on humblebragging…
So now, that original article has transmogrified into a two-part series exploring what the research says about how we should be posting on social media. As in, what’s the best way to share news about upcoming performances we’re excited about, our latest career wins, baking or cooking victories, the sweet thing our partner did for us today, or the crazy cute thing Fido did just now, without being annoying or irritating and irking all of our friends?
I figured this would be an interesting thing to take a closer look at.
And not just because everything we do nowadays is online or involves social media.
But because bringing up Haris Wittels also gives me an excuse to post a link to my favoritest Parks and Rec clip…which otherwise would have nothing to do with anything Soda Sizes - Parks and Recreation .
Two fundamental desires
Whether it’s a job interview, first date, orchestra rehearsal with a new stand partner, or our Instagram feed, we know that how others see us does matter quite a bit.
So except for those days where we really just don’t care, and take out the trash wearing our 25-year old scarlet and gray zebra-striped Zubaz, we usually make an effort to present ourselves effectively to others. Something psychologists call “self-presentation.”
Along these lines, we tend to have two fundamental desires.
A desire to be liked by others.
And a desire to be respected and seen as competent.
The tricky thing, of course, is that each of these goals requires the use of a different set of strategies.
For instance, most of the strategies that increase our likability tend to be “other-focused.” And involve making others feel seen and heard. Like doing something nice for them, helping them out of a bind, or agreeing to do a favor. Or complimenting or flattering them to make them feel good. Or agreeing with their opinions, to make them feel validated.
Humility is another useful likability-enhancing strategy. Like attributing our success to luck, or the help we received from various colleagues, teammates, or mentors, instead of making it seem like we are so awesome we did it all by ourselves. Or acknowledging our limitations, and underselling our achievements.
Research suggests that these sorts of strategies make us more likable. Because they make others feel more comfortable, and experience less of a need to compare themselves to us.
Complaining – when used sparingly – can also be a useful strategy. In that expressing to another that we’re tired, sick, or feeling overwhelmed, can elicit sympathy. And help us seem more relatable. Plus, confessing these things, and being more vulnerable in this way, also makes others feel closer to us. And complaining about the same things (e.g. annoying coworker, irritating thing the guest conductor did in rehearsal, etc.) can also increase that sense of closeness.
Gaining others’ respect on the other hand, tends to involve a different set of strategies. Strategies that center around convincing others that we know what we’re doing.
For instance, attributing success to personal characteristics, rather than sharing credit with others, or chalking it up to luck or circumstance. We might even exaggerate a bit. Or claim credit for things that might not really have been due to us alone. Or tell stories and anecdotes that make us look accomplished. Steering conversations in a way that enables us to share a flattering story about ourselves.
The interesting thing about the research in this area, is that most of the research out there looks at how to do one or the other. There’s not so much research on how to achieve both likability and respect at the same time. Because balancing these two things is awfully tricky.
A tricky balance
Like, if you push too hard on the bragging side of things, you run the risk of coming across as overly self-promotional or conceited. Which is going to sink your likability.
On the other hand, if you’re too humble or self-deprecating, people might like you ok, but fail to realize just how accomplished or qualified or awesome you actually are. Which could result in your being overlooked or passed over for teaching or performance gigs, business opportunities, etc.
And this is where humblebragging comes into play.
Because the intent of a humblebrag is to achieve both respect and likability in one fell swoop.
The idea is to establish our competence by bragging a bit about the cool thing that we just achieved. But still come across as likable, by masking that brag in a little bit of humility or in a complaint.
Like, “I lost so much weight I need to get new clothes (brag/competence), on top of all things I need to do (complaint).”
Or, “I don’t know why my friends are always asking me to sing for them (brag/competence). I don’t sound that great (humility).”
In theory, this does seem like a pretty clever technique that could potentially kill two birds with one stone. But does it actually work?
Like, do we get a boost in both respect and likability? Or in just one area? Or neither?
A team of researchers (Sezer et al., 2018) ran a series of nine studies to learn more about the phenomenon of humblebragging.
The first few studies had to do with the frequency of humblebragging.
And, as you probably already know from personal experience, humblebrags are pretty common. In general, there was a 45% chance that participants would encounter one on any given day of the week. And on average, participants reported coming across just over 2 humblebrags per week.
For what it’s worth, about 59% of humblebrags were of the complaint variety (e.g. “I hate that I look so young even a 19 year old hit on me.”), while 41% were the humility type (e.g. “I don’t understand why people hit on me when I spend 10 minutes getting ready.”).
Ok, so humblebrags are common. But what sort of impact do they have on how others treat us?
Study: humblebragging and helping behavior
The researchers sent a research assistant into eight different coffee shops near various colleges. She approached 113 random college students, asking if they would sign a petition to support a student-run food truck on campus during the upcoming summer.
After explaining why she was collecting signatures, she casually asked “What are you up to this summer by the way?”
And after listening to the participant’s response, she then responded with either a normal brag or a humblebrag. The normal brag being “That’s cool! I got my dream internship and got funding to travel to Paris.” And the humblebrag being “That’s cool! I got my dream internship and got funding to travel to Paris. Ugh it’s so hard to decide which one to choose.”
Then she asked if they would sign the petition.
So did bragging or humblebragging have any impact on whether participants were willing to sign the petition?
Humblebragging vs. straightforward bragging
Indeed there was!
In the bragging condition, about 86% of the participants agreed to sign the petition.
In the humblebrag condition, only 65% of the participants provided their signature.
So this would suggest that we’re more likely to get people’s help with something when we brag in a more straightforward way, than when we humblebrag.
But this study only looked at complaint-based humblebrags. Maybe humility-based humblebrags work better?
Study: Complaint-based vs. humility-based humblebrags
In the next study, the researchers recruited 403 participants and asked them to evaluate five different brags or humblebrags (all of which were actual humblebrags pulled from the internet).
Some of the participants were presented with complaint-based humblebrags. Like,
- “So I have to go to both Emmy awards!! . . . Two dresses!!!?!?!”
- “I hate when first class is no different than coach. #wasteofmoney”
Others were presented with the regular brag version of these humblebrags. Like,
- “I am going to both Emmy awards.”
- “I’m flying first class.”
Another group of participants were presented with humility-based humblebrags. Like,
- “Just getting to Book Review section—forgot I had a book out! Seeing it on New York Times bestseller list is a thrill (it is pretty funny)”
- “I just received an award for my teaching!?!? #whaaaaaaat?”
And then a final group was presented with the regular brag version of the humility-based humblebrags. Like,
- “My book is a New York Times bestseller.”
- “I just received an award for my teaching.”
Then, everyone was asked to rate how much they liked the person who posted those statements on a 1-7 scale (1=not at all; 7=very much).
They were also asked to rate the perceived sincerity of that person on the same 1-7 scale, answering the questions “How sincere do you think this person is?” and “How credible do you think this person is?”
And then they were asked to rate the person’s competence on a 1-7 scale.
And what did they find?
Well, participants rated the humblebraggers as being less likable than those who engaged in more straightforward bragging.
And they also rated the complaint-based humblebraggers as being less likable than the humility-based humblebraggers.
Humblebraggers were also rated as being less competent than the straightforward braggers. And complaint-based humblebraggers were seen as less competent than humility-based humblebraggers.
Humblebraggers were also seen as being less sincere than straightforward braggers. With complaint-based humblebraggers coming across as less sincere than humility-based humblebraggers.
So the main takeaway for me from this is that even though we might be tempted to use humblebragging as a way to be seen as competent, yet remain likable, it actually fails to do either. And we’re better off just straight-up bragging without trying to be all crafty about it.
And if we had to choose between the two types of humblebrags, humility-based humblebrags seem to be the way to go. But again, straightforward bragging, while perhaps not the sort of thing we want to do too often, does seem to be a much effective way to go about promoting our accomplishments and achievements than either type of humblebrag.
But why is that? How is it that humblebrags manage to not only make us less likable, but also appear less competent?
Why doesn’t humblebragging work?
Well, the researchers dug into the numbers a bit deeper, and found that humblebragging causes us to take a huge hit in one key area that has a significant effect on how people feel about us.
Specifically, perceived sincerity.
Apparently, humblebragging makes us come across as being less sincere. And being seen as insincere seems to be a big turn-off to others, leading them to like us less.
So if humblebragging doesn’t work, what are we supposed to do instead?
Well, the authors suggest that this is where having a wingman can be pretty helpful. Because if someone else brags for you, you get all the benefits of a brag, with little downside.
And failing that, regular ol’ bragging is definitely better than humblebragging, because at least it comes across as being more genuine.
At the end of the day, I don’t know that research has come up with the perfect social media posting strategy that gets us everything we want quite yet. But a recent study did find that at least when it comes to boosting our sense of well-being, and increasing our positive emotions and mood, there is a better (and worse) way to post on social media.
And what might that be?
Well, this article is already about twice as long as usual, so I’m inclined to call it a day and pick up right here next week, when we can explore these two strategies, and get into some actionable takeaways as well.
I know that’s not exactly a cliffhanger, but I hope it does make you a little curious about what these two opposing strategies might be. =)
UPDATE: Here’s that follow-up post I promised – A Better Way to Present Ourselves on Social Media? A Simple Adjustment for Improved Mood and Greater Well-Being
Sezer, O., Gino, F., & Norton, M. I. (2018). Humblebragging: A distinct—and ineffective—self-presentation strategy. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 114(1), 52–74. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspi0000108