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I bought a house that is simply too  big and now I have to hire a cleaning service… 

Friday, May 29, 2015
posted by Douglas Keene

humble bragMany of us have been taught to self-promote and we may even think others enjoy hearing of our successes. We’ve written about the principle of schadenfreude here before and if you recall those posts you may have already happily predicted that this will be a post about just how annoying those braggarts are to their put-upon audiences. Indeed it is. The researchers refer to this sort of behavior as “the humble brag” and it is every bit as annoying as any other form of bragging. Urban Dictionary defines a “humble brag” as follows:

“Subtly letting others now about how fantastic your life is while undercutting it with a bit of self-effacing humor or “woe is me” gloss.

Uggggh just ate about fifteen piece of chocolate gotta learn to control myself when flying first class or they’ll cancel my modeling contract LOL :p #humblebrag”

Lest you think an entry in the Urban Dictionary is the only publicity the humble brag is getting—a quick internet search will show you that this is a phrase whose time appears to have come (if, that is, you want to be the object of derision held up to a 1/4 million Twitter followers). You may think you are simply being charmingly self-effacing as you share your life. Your audience may not think you are charming at all.

If you wonder whether humble bragging is the meme of the month, you can forget it. If it has earned its way into peer-reviewed research publications, it has been around for at least a couple of years. Because researchers in the UK are now in press! They conducted three experiments to examine the impact of the humble brag on the audience in terms of the perception of the humble bragger. The researchers believe that we engage in self-promotion since we want others to have favorable images of us. But, they wondered, does self-promotion (which they labeled the “humble brag”) really work? And, as it turns out, self-promotion or “humble bragging” seems to actually backfire and result in negative reactions toward the self-promoter. Across three separate experiments, the results were consistent:

Self-promoters over-estimate the extent to which those who hear their self-promotional stories are likely to feel “happy for them and proud of them”.

Self-promoters under-estimate the level of annoyance their audience will experience while listening to them.

The listeners to excessive self-promotion end up seeing the self-promoter as less likable and as braggarts.

It’s an intriguing example of how quickly times change and “good advice” can go bad if not in touch with the times. It wasn’t that long ago that career counselors advised applicants to respond to questions about their weaknesses with comments about traits that could be seen as strengths. (“I tend to work quickly so have learned to review my work carefully so it’s done right the first time.”) These days, that sort of response might be seen as unresponsive, disingenuous or even a “humble brag”. The same sort of lesson holds true for litigation advocacy.

It wasn’t that long ago that trial lawyers would build rapport with jurors by commenting they were not really that good with technology. Now that sort of admission would make the attorney seem incompetent.

Times change. Expectations change. What seems like a good way to communicate to your audience may simply highlight your being out of touch with current thinking.

Scopelliti I, Loewenstein G, & Vosgerau J (2015). You Call It “Self-Exuberance”; I Call It “Bragging”: Miscalibrated Predictions of Emotional Responses to Self-Promotion. Psychological Science PMID: 25953948


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