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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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I Me Mine NarcissismConservative commentators like to say Barack Obama is cold and aloof (and narcissistic) because he uses so many personal pronouns in speeches. However, when compared to past Presidents, Obama’s personal pronoun use is actually lower than any President since 1945. It’s an interesting example of how our preexisting beliefs (and political orientation) skew how we hear things and thus form conclusions about others. Those of us who are old enough to remember the Beatles song I Me Mine, might think it an apt description of the narcissist.

Narcissists are characterized by an unrealistic sense of superiority and self-importance, and a persistent self-focus [recall Narcissus from mythology, forever gazing at his image in the water]. While they may seem charming at first, over time their grandiosity, self-focus and self-importance becomes toxic and suffocating and they lose relationships. So can we identify those who use personal pronouns excessively as narcissists? It makes some intuitive sense and it is certainly common wisdom. But, can we really use the frequency of personal pronouns as a good quick-and-dirty screening tool for narcissism? That was the question today’s researchers sought to answer. But they wanted to do it thoroughly and so used 4,811 subjects, across 5 separate labs, with 5 separate narcissism measures, and with English speakers and German speakers. So, large sample, multiple labs, multiple measures of narcissism, and multiple countries/languages.

The researchers say at the outset that while many believe there is a relationship between “I-talk” and narcissism, and this idea makes intuitive sense, there is actually little empirical evidence to support it (and what evidence exists is inconsistent). The researchers accessed 15 samples to examine the relationship of I-talk to narcissism. The samples included the ubiquitous psychology undergraduates, but also social network users in Germany, and German and US Facebook users.

Measures used included the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (in both German and English), the Dirty Dozen Scale, and the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale (in both German and English) and several single-item measures of narcissism. Written samples of various texts participants were asked to generate across different contexts (e.g., talking about some aspect of their own identity, writing about a topic related to themselves, or an impersonal topic) were analyzed by the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) software program.

Here is what the researchers found:

“Overall our analyses revealed consistent evidence of a near-zero effect. In short, our high powered investigation provided little compelling support for the often discussed connection between narcissism and I-talk.

In other words, narcissism was unrelated to total I-talk. And that means you can’t diagnose narcissism through self-referential speech. For the grammarians among us, the researchers measured first person singular pronouns as well as participant use of subjective, objective and possessive first-person singular pronouns. There were simply not relationships between the use of self-referential pronouns and narcissism.

The researchers wonder if the “intuitive association between I-talk and narcissism might be based more on a schema-based perceptual process, in the mind of the perceiver, rather than on an analytic pronoun count”. To me, that sounds like “if I don’t like you I will perceive your speech as indicating you are narcissistic”. Which is, in itself, somewhat self-referentially narcissistic.

In everyday language, what that means is that if your attitudes, beliefs and values (and even your political ideology) vary from the speaker, you may be more prone to “hear” narcissism than if you are listening to someone whose values seem to align with your own. If you had a Mom like mine, it mostly means that you talk too much about yourself.

That is a phenomena many of us have seen as we listen to mock jurors react based on mishearing facts and evidence and incorporating their own beliefs into their judgment. We understand this as a problem with the case narrative hitting on “hot button” beliefs that mean mock jurors have defend their pre-existing beliefs.

Just like the conspiracy theorist, these jurors who “just are not listening”, help us refine and re-craft case narratives so they touch on universal values rather than attitude/value/belief/ideology “hot buttons” that result in off-track reactions.

Carey, AL, Brucks, MS, Küfner, ACP, Holtzman, NS, Deters, FG, Back, MD, Donnellan, MB, Pennebaker, JW, & Mehl, MR (2015). Narcissists and Pronouns: “I”, “me” “mine”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.


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millennial tattooWe’ve written a lot about tattoos here and this writeup is going to be a little different from most of our posts. Rather than spending time on the research findings, we want to cite some of the more unusual and surprising findings the author reviews as a prelude to her results.

So, to be brief, the researcher found that Millennials are growing up and yes, they do know tattoos may be frowned upon in some parts of the business world. Further, many of them say that they will consider how able they will be to conceal a new tattoo in business attire as they approach the job market. That isn’t that surprising to us at all. What was surprising was some of the literature the author cited as she reviewed (oh the many) reasons someone should talk to Millennials and make sure they realize tattoos are permanent and may keep them from getting hired.

Here are just a few of the findings she cites in her review of the literature:

There is a Facebook page called “Tattoo Acceptance in the Workplace” which has over 2 million “likes”! (It seems to be more a place to show your art than to talk about the issues related to having tattoos in the workplace.)

A 2012 study showed that customers who have tattoos are more likely to trust salespeople who also have tattoos and that people associate more positive traits to salespeople with “feminine tattoos”.

Another survey completed in 2012 in a rural hospital showed patients did not view male health care professionals with tattoos positively. Caregivers with tattoos are seen as “unsanitary” or “dirty”. It is imagined that the judges of the tattoos are not, themselves, owners of tattoos. No ink-bonding there. Another 2010 health care setting survey resulted in concerns about infection control since tattoo cover ups could hamper good washing of the hands. We imagine that there is concern that some people who cover up tattoos don’t realize that they need to be uncovered for the sake of cleaning skin. An odd concern, we think.

Undergraduate accounting students in 2011 thought accounting professionals should not have visible tattoos (even though 26% of the survey participants had their own tattoos!). Further, those students had less confidence in the tattooed accountant and were less likely to recommend the services of a tattooed accountant.

A man in Pennsylvania sought employment as a “Liquor Enforcement Officer” in 2012 and was told in order to be hired he would have to remove his tattoos. He filed a lawsuit alleging multiple violations and the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit upheld the lower court ruling (for the Defendant) saying “having a tattoo is not a fundamental right”.

Another ruling in 2006 involved lawsuit by several police officers who claimed their police chief did not have the authority to force employees to cover up tattoos because they were “offensive” or “unprofessional”. The court said that public employees may expect to have their first amendment rights more curtailed in order to “promote effective government”.

It is intriguing that self-expression tends to lose in court. Even more so, it is a testament to the power of the tattoo to divide even those with tattoos. Tattoos are going to be judged and they are almost always going to be judged negatively (even by those who also have tattoos)—so if you are a tattooed attorney or have a tattooed client, you may want to cover your own and have your client cover theirs as well while in court.

Foltz, KA (2015). The Millennial’s perception of tattoos: Self expression or business faux pas? College Student Journal


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evil psychopathsCriminal psychopaths are a common topic we write about here. They are notoriously difficult to treat, but are so disturbing they make for fascinating study (and hopefully reading). Some say they are not treatable. They are highly likely to reoffend after incarceration and prison is neither a deterrent nor a punishment for many of them. So to see a research article on an actual treatment for the adult psychopath is noteworthy.

These researchers recruited 14 criminal psychopaths with long and very violent histories who were serving long-term sentences in forensic psychiatric institutions with high security regulations in Germany to take part in a neurofeedback training program. Neurofeedback involves hooking a person up to an EEG machine to monitor brain activity. The brain activity is displayed on a computer screen as a graphical object and the person involved attempts to move the graphical display by controlling their brain activity—and they are rewarded for so doing, as in a video game.

So the psychopaths had 25 training sessions (each about an hour-long) in neurofeedback spread out over about 3 months and afterwards, they demonstrated “improved control” over their brain activity and reported (in questionnaire completion) having “reduced levels of impulsivity and aggression”. Those with the most “improved control” reported larger reductions in their aggression.

The researchers say that they will need to do more research but these criminal psychopaths were able to improve their brain activity control and reported a decrease in the impulsivity and aggression that varied depending on how much they improved in their ability to control brain activity. I guess it’s comforting that they report lower aggression, but I’m not sure I’d accept the word of a psychopath on that. The researchers think it would be good to have outcome measures that were not reliant on self-reports from severely violent psychopaths and we would agree. Very, very strongly…

Let’s consider the life of the severe criminal psychopath serving a “long term sentence in forensic psychiatric institutions with high security regulations”. They must get very bored and this research presents an opportunity to have 25 hours over the course of three months away from their highly restricted routine. The sample is very small (only 14) and while they did improve in their ability to control their brain activity on an EEG monitor, that makes them completely unremarkable. It isn’t a terribly hard thing to do, it simply requires an effort. And they really have little else to do.

It’s an interesting line of inquiry though and we’ll watch for more on this one. At this point though, it is likely interesting but meaningless in the overall question of what we do with the severely violent criminal psychopath.

Konicar L, Veit R, Eisenbarth H, Barth B, Tonin P, Strehl U, & Birbaumer N (2015). Brain self-regulation in criminal psychopaths. Scientific reports, 5 PMID: 25800672


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When to use humor in the courtroom 

Wednesday, May 6, 2015
posted by Douglas Keene

humor in courtA few weeks ago, headlines proclaimed that Justin Bieber was going to be the target of a comedy roast. Then, after the roast, all anyone could talk about was Martha Stewart and her bawdy contribution. Some people enjoy comedy roasts. Shortly after the Bieber roast, Max Ufberg at Pacific Standard wrote about both the danger and the allure of comedy roasts.

Ufberg says “deprecating humor is satisfying because it helps people feel superior”. In other words, when you put someone down with a demeaning comment or a joke at their expense, you feel better by comparison. Ufberg goes on to describe how comedy roasts began and then quotes experts who say the emotional tone of a comedy roast and “create a social environment more accepting of prejudiced forms of expression”.

So, if Mr. Ufberg is correct, humor that marginalizes its target or otherwise makes fun of or demeans the target is potentially making some of us more accepting of prejudice. And we all know there is a time and a place for everything—humor included. So when does it make sense to use humor in the courtroom? One would think it might help build rapport with jurors.

Or perhaps not. The Supreme Court’s guidebook for attorneys recommends they not use humor as “attempts at humor usually fall flat”. Thanks to often-present cameras in the courtroom, many of us have seen a joke proffered by the attorney attempting to win over a jury, fall flat. You may recall the Zimmerman defense attorney offering a knock-knock joke in his opening statement.

Our own advice to the attorney who desperately wants to crack a joke is “don’t. But if you must, only use self-deprecating humor”. For example, you might say to the expert witness, “you know, I was never good with statistics, but this just makes no sense to me…can you help me understand?”. The problem with self-deprecation by attorneys about technical matters is that jurors don’t usually believe it. They are sure that by the time you get to trial you know what you are speaking about, and they are skeptical of what you say if you claim otherwise. Especially when you demonstrate a significant depth of knowledge when you cross-examine the opposing expert witness.

Gentle, infrequent humor at your own expense that furthers your connection to the jurors and helps them to understand your case (through the expert testimony) is better than humor that someone may see as marginalizing their own deeply held beliefs.


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