People who brag may think it makes them look good, but it often backfires, new research suggests.
Self-promoters may continue to brag because they fundamentally misjudge how other people perceive them, according to a study published online May 7 in the journal Psychological Science.
"Most people realize that they experience emotions other than pure joy when they are on the receiving end of other people's self-promotion," said study co-author Irene Scopelliti, a behavioral scientist at the City University London in England. "But when we ourselves engage in self-promotion — either on social media or in person — we tend to overestimate people's positive reactions, and we underestimate their negative reactions."
Nowadays, every Facebook and Twitter post is an opportunity for people to boast about that 3-hour marathon they completed or their baby's precocious first steps. Career websites such as Monster.com urge self-promotion to land better jobs. And reality TV is littered with stars whose main talent is advertising their own existence. On its face, bragging may seem like a straightforward way to make a favorable impression.
But is boasting really such a great strategy?
To find out, Scopelliti and her colleagues asked 131 workers on the crowdsourcing site Amazon Mechanical Turk to fill out a short survey in which they either recalled a time they bragged about something or had someone else brag to them. They were then asked to describe their own emotions and what they imagined were the emotions of the other person in the interaction. Self-promoters often boasted about a variety of topics, from professional success and money to when a child first started talking, Scopelliti said.
Self-promoters assumed the listener would be happier and prouder of the bragger than those listeners actually were. Instead, the listeners were often annoyed, upset or angry. While some recipients of unwanted bragging felt a sense of inferiority or jealousy, self-promoters often thought people would be more jealous than they actually were, Scopelliti said.
An empathy gap may explain this discord — both parties had trouble imagining how they would feel if the situations were reversed, Scopelliti said.
"I think we tend to be pretty self-focused; we tend to not understand that other people think differently about the world," said Michael Norton, a behavioral scientist at Harvard Business School in Boston who was not involved in the study.
This may even be a holdover from a childhood conception of self, when parents praised everything their little ones did and proudly hung every scribbled drawing on the refrigerator, Norton said.
"A lot of us don't learn that not everyone thinks as highly of us as our parents do and might not react as well," Norton told Live Science. [10 Scientific Tips for Raising Happy Kids]
Fixing the problem
Playing down accomplishments, complaining or being self-deprecating while bragging — behaviors known as "humble bragging" — don't work either, perhaps because the mixed messages are confusing to people, Scopelliti said.
In addition, some moral philosophers view complaining and bragging as two sides of the same coin, because "both braggers and complainers try to monopolize conversational space at the expense of the recipient," Scopelliti told Live Science.
Therefore, trying to be more aware of the balance in a conversation could be a good start, Scopelliti said. People who are genuinely humble — who tend to spend less time focused on themselves and more time thinking of others — are on the right track in this regard, she said.
Those with more strategic goals, such as getting ahead in the workplace, could enlist the help of others, Norton said.
"If someone else brags on your behalf, it's a fantastic way to get the message across because it doesn't feel like you're the one looking for credit," Norton said.
And then there's that timeworn advice: Just be yourself (unless "yourself" really is a boastful egotist).
People value honesty and candor, so "there is some hope that if you are a normal person, people will value you for being true to who you are," Norton said.