- Matt Sayles/AP
Bragging can be a good idea – as long as evidence that comes along later will back you up.
That’s the conclusion of a paper published October 4 in the journal Social Psychology.
Researchers out of Brown University presented subjects on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform with short snippets of stories about people, like this one:
“Harry recently took a test designed to assess his general intelligence. When asked to report how he thought he did, he responded, ‘better than the average person.’ In fact, it turns out that he actually did beat the average overall score on the general intelligence test.”
In other versions of the story, the test-taker doesn’t brag but scores highly, brags but gets a below-average score, or doesn’t brag and gets a low score. In a second study presented the same paper, subjects only read that the test-taker bragged or did not brag – without learning the result of the test.
“We tried to change the decision to brag or to boast or to ‘self-enhance’ into a strategy,” said Patrick Heck, an author on the study.
The goal was to evaluate how useful a strategy it is in different situations.
The study subjects rated the imagined test-takers on their competence and morality – two dimensions of how people understand one another laid out by Princeton psychologist Susan Fiske.
A bragger who can’t live up to their own claims comes off as the least competent. But the other two braggers – the one who backs up his words with a great score, and the one whose score remains hidden – come off as more competent than non-braggers.
But there’s also a way even successful braggers get punished: They seem less moral. Whether or not they backed up their words with actions, subjects judged braggers as more immoral than non-braggers.
And there’s another benefit to not bragging. If a person predicts they’ll get a low score on the test, and then does get a low score on the test, they seem significantly less incompetent than the bragger who gets a low score.
“So if you found yourself in a job interview,” Heck said, “and you could slow down time and you think about the decision you’re about to make: Do I claim to be better than other candidates? Or do I decide to be humble and say I’m worse in some ways than other candidates? The right answer sort of comes down to what you’re most interested in emphasizing or protecting – your perceived competence, or your perceived morality.”
At the same time, it’s important to understand that this is a limited study. Subjects evaluated narrow, somewhat contrived stories taken outside the context in which most human interactions happen. There are plenty of issues that could complicate how this effect plays out in the real world.
For example, all the test takers in the stories had male names. It’s entirely possible that people punish women more (or less) for bragging in identical situations. And all the subjects came from the United States – folks from different parts of the world might react to bragging in very different ways.