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Humblebragging Just Makes You Look Like a Fraud

New research finds the common practice inadvertently projects insincerity.

I'm such a fool! When I was interviewing Eddie Izzard last week, I should have mentioned this new study about the dangers of humblebragging. He would have enjoyed riffing on it!

If you found that self-deprecating yet self-promoting assertion annoying, you have confirmed the study's main conclusion. It reports humblebrags—ostensibly self-effacing statements that covertly aim to impress—seldom have the intended effect.

"The proliferation of humblebragging in social media, the workplace, and everyday life suggests that people believe it to be an effective self-promotion strategy," write researchers Ovul Sezer of the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, and Francesca Gino and Michael Norton of Harvard Business School. In fact, they report, it is "a uniquely ineffective form of self-praise."

In the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the researchers describe nine studies that explore this phenomenon. The first three confirm that humblebragging is common in many facets of life, and delineate between two varieties of such assertions: complaint-based and humility-based.

Examples of complaint-based humblebrags include "I lost so much weight I need to get new clothes, on top of all the things I need to do" and "It is so hard to choose between Lexus and BMW." Humility-based ones are more along the lines of "I can't understand why I was made employee of the month."

In one study, 403 people recruited online read a series of humblebrags (either complaint- or humility-based), as well as a series of straightforward brags. Then, using one-to-seven scales, they rated each braggart's likability, credibility, and sincerity.

"Individuals who humblebrag—couching a brag in a complaint or humility—are less liked, and perceived to be less competent, than those who straightforwardly brag," the researchers write. "Complaint-based humblebrags are viewed more negatively than humility-based humblebrags."

Another study found that "humblebraggers are seen as insincere, leading them to be less liked, and treated less generously." Still another demonstrated that this dislike can have real-world consequences.

It featured a young woman who approached 113 college students, asking them to sign a petition. Her chatty pitch included either a straightforward brag ("I got my dream internship, and got funding to travel to Paris!"), or a humblebrag (in which that statement was followed by "Ugh! It's so hard to decide which one to choose!").

More than 85 percent of the students who heard the straightforward brag signed the petition, compared to only 65 percent of those who were subjected to the humblebrag.

"Despite the belief that combining bragging with complaining or humility confers the benefits of each strategy, we find that humblebragging confers the benefits of neither," Sezer and her colleagues conclude, "instead backfiring because it is seen as insincere."

So, if you can't summon up genuine humility, unfiltered bragging is less obnoxious than attempting to couch it in fake modesty. That's good advice for everyone—including political leaders. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was widely panned for humblebragging during a recent speech to the United Nations General Assembly.

Perhaps at their next summit meeting, President Donald Trump can coach him in the fine points of barefaced boasting.