If you've spent any time on Twitter, then you're probably familiar with the "humblebrag"—a brag veiled in a complaint, so as to sound less blatantly like a brag.
Here's an example from the Twitter account of Ari Fleischer, former White House press secretary: They just announced my flight at LaGuardia is number 15 for takeoff. I miss Air Force One!! And here's one from film director Lee Unkrich: Just in case you think all this has gone to my head, within 36 hours of winning the Oscar, I was back home plunging a clogged toilet.
“NOT ONLY DO WE LIKE HUMBLEBRAGGERS LESS, WE'RE LESS LIKELY TO BE GENEROUS TO THEM”
Humblebragging runs rampant on Twitter, but it turns out to be a lousy self-promotion tactic, especially in business situations such as job interviews, according to recent research by Harvard Business School's Ovul Sezer, Francesca Gino, and Michael I. Norton.
Their research shows that when given the choice to brag or to humblebrag, it's better to straight-out brag.
"When people first join Twitter, one of the first things they notice is that a lot of people humblebrag," says Francesca Gino, a professor in the Negotiation, Organizations & Markets unit at HBS. "We were interested in discovering if this was an effective strategy, since a lot of people seemed to be doing it. Our assumption was that … they think there's an advantage to doing it, given that it's such a common practice. And we found that it's an ineffective strategy."
The researchers hypothesized that humblebragging garners negative impressions because the strategy seems insincere, compared with pure bragging or pure complaining. They tested the hypothesis in a series of five studies, detailed in the paper Humblebragging: A Distinct—and Ineffective—Self-Presentation Strategy. (pdf)
About That 'biggest Weakness' Interview Question…
In the first study, the researchers created a dataset of 740 items from the Twitter feed @Humblebrag. The brainchild of the late comedy writer Harris Wittels, the page lists real tweets categorized as humblebrags between June 2011 and March 2013. Examples include I just realized muscles & golf don't mesh (from former professional linebacker Shawne Merriman) and Remind me not to stay out til 2am w/@kidrock again. Hurtin' for certain today (from cyclist Lance Armstrong).
Two independent raters evaluated each item, based on both the likability and the sincerity of the tweets, and the extent to which they perceived each statement as a humblebrag. The identities of the tweeters were concealed, so the raters weren't swayed by celebrity. The results showed that humblebragging was negatively correlated with liking: The more raters viewed a tweet as a humblebrag, the less they liked the tweeter. Humblebrags also received high insincerity ratings, suggesting that disingenuousness is a key reason that people don't like humblebrags, just as the researchers had hypothesized.
The takeaway: Humblebragging is annoying. "It's as if you're trying to say something good about yourself, but then you cover it up with something else," Gino says. "And people don't like that."
The second study looked at humblebragging in the context of job interviews. The research team wanted to gauge how often people humblebrag when faced with the common interview question, "What's your biggest weakness?" Indeed, interviewees are often counseled to put a positive spin on the answer: "I'm overly eager to please my customers," for instance, or "It's hard for me to work on teams because I'm such a perfectionist."
The researchers hired 122 college students to explain how they would answer the interview question, and why they would answer that way. Two independent coders evaluated the responses according to the extent to which they humblebragged, and whether the answers were honest or strategic. Separately, two research assistants rated each response based on whether the respondent seemed like an attractive job candidate.
Results showed that 77 percent of participants had chosen to humblebrag rather than disclose an obvious weakness—the most common answers focused on perfectionism (32.8 percent), working too hard (24.6 percent), and niceness to a fault (14.8 percent).
Of those respondents who did humblebrag, some 66 percent said they did so strategically. But it turned out to be a bad strategy. Overall, the research assistants were much more interested in hiring the honest answerers than the humblebraggers.
The takeaway: Don't humblebrag in a job interview.
Deconstructing The Humblebrag
The next set of studies measured the efficacy of pure complaining and pure bragging against humblebragging.
"If you look at the structure of a humblebrag, there's a part where you're trying to promote yourself, and then there's also a complaint," Gino says. "And so we separated them out to try to understand which one would win—in terms of being liked and having people be willing to help you out."
The researchers asked 201 participants to evaluate the likability and sincerity of a hypothetical person based on a single statement. Participants were randomly assigned to rate one of three statements: "I am so bored of people mistaking me for a model" (a humblebrag), "People mistake me for a model" (a brag), and "I am so bored" (a complaint). The results showed that the complaint received the highest likability scores, while the humblebrag received the lowest. Complaints scored the highest ratings for perceived sincerity, while humblebrags scored the lowest.
Next, the researchers dug into whether humblebragging offers any compensatory benefits, in spite of the perceived insincerity and bad feelings it engenders.
As with the previous study, the team hired 201 participants to evaluate another person based on a single statement. Half read a blatant brag ("I get hit on all the time"), while the other half read a humblebrag ("Just rolled out of bed and still get hit on all the time, so annoying). This time, participants rated the targets not only on likability and sincerity, but also on how attractive they thought the person was.
And as with the previous study, participants saw humblebraggers as less likable and more insincere than blatant braggers. But more importantly, they viewed humblebraggers as less attractive than the braggers.
The takeaway: By public perception, complainers are better than braggers. And humblebraggers are the worst.
By this point in the research, it was clear that humblebragging engenders disdain. But would negative feelings lead to negative actions?
In the final study, the researchers investigated whether people treat humblebraggers worse than they treat braggers. "We predicted that people would allocate less money to humblebraggers than to braggers when given $5 to split in a dictator game," they explain in the paper. (A common tool in experimental economics, the dictator game has one player determining how to split an endowment between himself and another player.)
The prediction bore out. In a series of experiments involving 154 participants, those paired with braggers allocated more money than those paired with humblebraggers.
The takeaway: Seriously, stop humblebragging! "Not only do we like humblebraggers less that braggers, but we're less likely to be generous to them," Gino says.
Next Steps And Lessons Learned
Gino says her team plans to continue its research on humblebragging, homing in on the motivations behind it—that is, why people keep doing it even though it only seems to breed contempt. "One of the things we want to examine in future research is to look at whether having more experience or power leads to more or less humblebragging," she says. "For instance, we started looking at accounts on Twitter of people who are executives or CEOs. This will help us understand how much they humblebrag. We're also going to look at people who recently got promoted to a new job with more power, and see if there's a change in their humblebragging behavior."
In the meantime, Gino is applying some of the lessons learned from the initial research—namely, admitting fallibility rather than couching it.
"I think people have a tendency not to say something negative about themselves because that makes them vulnerable," she says.
Since beginning the humblebrag research, Gino has realized the value of public vulnerability. For instance, when teaching a Negotiation class to first-year MBA students, she shares the story of the time she flubbed an important negotiation situation in her own life. "I tell them about how my postdoc advisor made me an offer, and I accepted it immediately, without letting him talk about it a bit longer, which is clearly not how you should approach a negotiation situation. In fact, he ended up telling me he could improve the offer if I [had] only asked!" she says. "I think the students appreciate hearing the story—we can all learn from our own mistakes (and those of others!)."
That said, Gino recently humblebragged on Twitter about the humblebragging research: "So exhausting to keep up with all the people asking for this paper."
"That was a joke," she explains. "But people likely disliked the statement anyway."