Harvard study: Humblebragging doesn’t work

April 30, 2015, 2:07 PM UTC
You're The Best!
A businessman pats another on the shoulder in a congratulatory manner, circa 1940. (Photo by FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Photograph by FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Maybe you never heard the term “humblebragging,” coined by late Parks and Recreation executive producer Harris Wittels. But you know what it is: people’s use of false modesty as a context to tell you just how great they are. A new study from the Harvard Business School suggests that self-promotional attempt while pretending an air of modesty doesn’t work.

Here’s a perfect example of humblebragging from famous Internet entrepreneur Kevin Rose, co-founder of Digg, among other companies:

In the middle of playing the geek card, Rose also lets everyone on Twitter know that he’s cool enough to be near actress Jessica Alba.

There are so many other examples in the world, like intellectual prodigy Ronan Farrow, who was accepted to Yale Law School at age 16, saying while being interviewed by Jon Stewart, “I think I am the type of lawyer that is probably a failed doctor. I saw organic chemistry, and I was like, ‘nope, going to law school,'” or Ari Fleischer tweeting, “They just announced my flight at LaGuardia is number 15 for takeoff. I miss Air Force One!!”

The most common humblebrag may be the job interview game where the questioner asks prospects what their biggest weaknesses are, while the interviewees go one about the problems of being a perfectionist or of being accommodating and easy to get along with.

Oh, the humble beginnings. Oh, the difficulties of fame and fortune. Oh, would someone please stop talking.

And now they can without worrying that they might not be getting a leg up in the world. Harvard Business Professors Francesca Gino and Michael I. Norton and doctoral student Ovul Sezer wrote a paper about several experiments that showed humblebragging does the speaker no good at all. Here are some of the results:

  • On social media like Twitter, humblebragging was negatively associated with being liked and being perceived as competent. Basically, people don’t like humblebraggers. Instead of self-promotion, humblebrags helped with self-demotion.
  • In a test of the “biggest weakness” interview question, 77% of responses were perceived as humblebrags and only 23% admissions of a real weakness. The most common humblebrags were about being a perfectionist, working too hard, being too nice and helpful, and being too fair and honest. People hiring a candidate were less likely to hire the humblebragger than the honest person.
  • In a choice between someone humblebragging, bragging, or just complaining, people were more inclined, in order of preference, to like the complainer, bragger, and, coming up last, humblebragger. People who humblebrag are viewed more negatively than those who complain or brag.
  • Not only were people associated with a humblebrag liked less than someone seen as bragging, but they were viewed as less sincere and less attractive.

If you want to toot your own horn, you’re better off bragging than humblebragging. If you want to complain, complain. And if you decide to humblebrag anyway, be ready for the general public to beat a hasty path away from your door.