Petrenko Andriy/shutterstockPoor, bewildered Patti Stanger: Bravo’s Millionaire Matchmaker just can’t understand why men find her gorgeous when she’s wearing no makeup. And pity sweet Emma Watson, who more than a decade into her career as an international movie star, still isn’t comfortable with all the attention. You might not be aware of their “suffering,” except they told us about it on Twitter, probably with the intention of presenting themselves in a positive, yet humble, light. You know, a brag… but a humble one.
The humblebrag, as it’s called, first appeared in print in 2002 and is now among the words recently added to the dictionary. In fact, those two tweets were culled from this collection of celebrity humblebrags, with the introduction, “Did they really just tweet that?”
The truth is: No one likes a humblebrag. You know that in your gut. But it’s also a scientific fact, thanks to an ongoing study out of Harvard Business School that is the first scientific investigation of the phenomenon of humblebragging. As a means of presenting ourselves in a positive light, humblebragging is entirely ineffective, according to the study authors, Francesca Gino, PhD, Michael I. Norton, PhD, of Harvard Business School, and Ovul Sezer, PhD, who earned her doctorate at Harvard Business School and is an assistant professor at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School.
“People don’t like when others humblebrag because they find it insincere,” Dr. Sezer told Reader’s Digest. “Sincerity is a critical dimension of social evaluation…it’s seen as fundamental to people’s identity.” In other words, people care whether you’re being sincere or fake. In fact, people prize sincerity even above competence and warmth in others, according to Dr. Sezer. “The problem with humblebrags is twofold: When someone humblebrags, people can see the brag, and they don’t like it. On top of that, they can see the attempt to hide it, which they recognize as insincere.” For that reason, humblegragging backfires.
In fact, humblebragging, whether cloaked in a complaint (as in Watson’s complaint about being uncomfortable with her fame) or in humility (as in Stanger’s bewilderment over men finding her bare face so beautiful), is “less effective than straightforward bragging,” according to the study. So, if humblebragging doesn’t work, and no one likes it, why do we still do it? Or more to the point, why do our friends?
We all want to highlight our positive qualities without seeming arrogant, Dr. Sezer explains. By tossing in a complaint or an expression of humility, we hope we’ll somehow land on the “sweet spot” of self-presentation: promoting ourselves while also conveying likability. In addition, the research suggests that people may experience positive emotions while humblebragging.
Given that we’re all susceptible to the urge to humblebrag, at least to some extent, as Dr. Sezer points out, the proper response when we hear a friend doing it may be to simply let it go—because eventually we’re going to do it ourselves, and who really wants to be called out on it?
Regardless of whether or not you tend to humblebrag, you should probably be aware of what your social media profile is saying about you.