How to Boast on the Sly

A guide to bragging better

Marco Goran Romano

An essential quandary of social life is how to let others know we’re awesome, without letting them know we want them to know. Is there a way to harvest the reputational benefits of self-promotion while avoiding its costs?

Research exposes boasting’s pitfalls. For example, when we brag, we miscalculate how others will react. In one study, self-promoters overestimated the extent to which their audiences would feel “proud” and “happy,” and underestimated their annoyance. And when people were asked to share five facts about themselves, those who were told to sound interesting succeeded only in sounding more boastful and unlikable than those who weren’t given additional prompts [1]. In another study, people disliked explicit self-superiority claims (“I am better than others”) more than implicit claims (“I am a good person”) because the stronger claims appeared to denigrate the listener [2].

Speaking of being a good person, a caution: Broadcasting your own generosity impresses others only if they were previously unaware of it. In one study, a Facebook update about giving money to a food bank made the poster seem more altruistic than did a post about going out to eat—unless his Facebook friends already knew about the donation, in which case they saw him as less altruistic after he boasted about it [3].

Women appear to pay the greatest price for bragging. When job candidates in one study self-confidently highlighted their accomplishments, they were seen as more competent than when they spoke modestly. Yet the women who self-promoted were seen as less likable than the self-effacing women [4].

If you want to boast, hire someone to do it for you. Subjects rated a job candidate as more likable, competent, and deserving of a high salary when a (clearly) paid representative sang his praises for him. And an author was liked better when a literary agent delivered his pitch than when he did it himself—even though listeners knew he was responsible for what was said in both circumstances [5].

If you do self-promote, keep your audience slightly distracted. When listeners were “cognitively busy,” they were less likely to remember a self-promoter as the source of the glowing information they had heard about him, and thus didn’t perceive him to be as immodest as they did when they were paying closer attention [6]. You might alternatively try raising a topic relevant to your intended brag (say, grades), in the hopes that your interlocutor will ask just the question (“What did you get?”) that you are dying to answer (“A+”). In one study, three-fifths of participants later forgot that the braggart was the one who’d raised the subject, so he paid no price [7].

As for humblebragging (disguising a boast as a complaint, like “People keep telling me how cute I am—awkward!”), be careful. The strategy can backfire: Across several studies, humblebraggers were seen as less sincere and likable than plain braggarts [8].

I’ll end here. I have so many articles to write for high-profile magazines—annoying!

The Studies:

[1] Scopelliti et al., “You Call It ‘Self-Exuberance’; I Call It ‘Bragging’ ” (Psychological Science, June 2015)

[2] Van Damme et al., “Why Self-Enhancement Provokes Dislike” (Self and Identity, Nov. 2015)

[3] Berman et al., “The Braggart’s Dilemma” (Journal of Marketing Research, Feb. 2015)

[4] Rudman, “Self-Promotion as a Risk Factor for Women” (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, March 1998)

[5] Pfeffer et al., “Overcoming the Self-Promotion Dilemma” (Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Oct. 2006)

[6] Fragale and Grant, “Busy Brains, Boasters’ Gains” (Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, May 2015)

[7] Tal-Or, “Bragging in the Right Context” (Social Influence, Jan. 2010)

[8] Sezer et al., “Humblebragging” (Harvard Business School working paper, April 2015)