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  • Nobody wants to hear about your squash court successes
  • Nobody wants to hear about your squash court successes
    Newthinking Communications, Creative Commons (2015) ©
Science

I’m the best! The science of bragging

You’ve just won a pitch. A big one. But who actually wants to hear about it? Canvas8 sat down with Dr. Irene Scopelliti, co-author of ‘You Call It ‘Self-Exuberance’; I Call It ‘Bragging’’, to understand why we show off and why we underestimate the negative effects of self-promotion.

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You’ve just won a pitch. A big one. It’s a huge success for the company and a springboard for your career. You’re on your way back to the office and can’t wait to tell everyone about how well it went. You can already feel the high fives tingling your palms as you play out the possible announcements in your head.

But who actually wants to hear about it? And how should you deliver the news to maximise your success? Positive experiences tend to be enhanced by sharing them. But everybody hates a braggart. Research shows that people who brag are not perceived as more competent or successful, and are generally liked less than those who are more modest about their achievements. So why on earth do we keep doing it?

Canvas8 sat down with Dr. Irene Scopelliti, senior lecturer in marketing at the Cass Business School and author of the study 'You Call It ‘Self-Exuberance’; I Call It ‘Bragging’: Miscalibrated Predictions of Emotional Responses to Self-Promotion', to understand why we underestimate the negative effects of our self-promotional sharing.

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Why did you study bragging?
We can all think of some friends who are pervasive braggarts. It’s everywhere. But the scientific literature is not really clear as to whether bragging is a good self-presentation strategy. There are some results that show that modest self-presentation may be more effective.

People brag – or self-promote, which is the more scientific term – when they want to make a positive impression. But one relatively old study showed that people who were self-promoting were not perceived as more competent and were generally liked less than those who did not self-promote.

It’s a lose-lose basically – no improvement in perceived competence and the expense of being liked less. So we started with that in mind and wanted to figure out why it was the case. Why do people brag when everybody hates when they’re on the receiving end? What is going on?

A compulsive braggart may leave their audience thinking ‘who cares?’ A compulsive braggart may leave their audience thinking ‘who cares?’
Matthew Kenwrick, Creative Commons (2011) ©

How did you go about testing your theory?
We developed a paradigm in which we asked participants to tell us about a life experience of either bragging of receiving, and asked them to rate the recipient/braggart on a set of emotional scales – whether they felt happy, proud, jealous, upset, inferior, annoyed, etc. We coded the answers to tell us the degree to which the braggarts and the recipients were experiencing positive and negative emotions, as well as the perceived emotions of the other person in the conversation. We analysed the data and found an overestimation of the positive emotions experienced by the recipient of bragging, and underestimation of the negative emotions. Basically, we are miscalibrated when it comes to figuring out others’ emotional responses to self-promotion.

Going further, we wondered whether that miscalibration would extend to overestimating the positive impact that bragging has on others liking them. So in another study we assigned participants to two groups and asked them to create a personal profile, similar to social media or online dating. They had to write five things about themselves, anything they wanted. Half of these participants were told to select these five things in a way that would make others maximally interested in meeting them. Then we asked all the participants to predict how much others would be interested in meeting them, how much they would like them, how much they would think they are successful people, and to what extent they were bragging. We took all the profiles and gave them to a large sample of new participants and asked them rate the first group according to those four criteria.

We observed another serious miscalibration. First of all, the people who were asked to write a profile that maximised the reader's interest were bragging more. When they predicted how much others would perceive them as bragging, they thought that it would be a little higher for that condition, but not as high as the actual perceptions were. And despite the fact that they bragged more, the profile readers didn’t show any higher interest in meeting them, and actually liked them less. The study shows that people are also miscalibrated in anticipating the consequences of their bragging. Yet we still do it.

When bragging, we overestimate how much our positive feelings will impact listeners When bragging, we overestimate how much our positive feelings will impact listeners
Ray Wewerka, Creative Commons (2013) ©

What did you find?
A very intuitive explanation came out, which is the idea that people brag because they lose the awareness of how others will respond when they’re in the position of the braggart. Suppose that we get a good publication – which for us academics is a great achievement – we feel the urge to tell our colleagues, because of course we believe that they would be happy and proud of us.

But when we are on the other end we realise that things aren’t exactly that way; we experience something that is more complicated. We may be happy for a colleague, but we have that bittersweet feeling of ‘maybe I should work more because I should get there too’, or ‘I would have preferred not to know it because now I’m aware we’re competing for the same resources’. So your role in the conversation changes your perceptions.

We also know that when something good happens, positive experiences tend to be enhanced by sharing them. So we have this urge to share which, although motivated by positive emotions, makes us blind to the consequences of bragging.

It’s sometimes the case that bragging begets envy It’s sometimes the case that bragging begets envy
Janssem Cardoso, Creative Commons (2016) ©

Then why do we do it?
The problems with bragging are due to a phenomenon called the empathy gap. We find it very hard to imagine what it’s like to be in any emotional state other than the one we’re currently in, especially the emotional states of another person. People who brag just don’t realise what the intentions of the audience may be. They don’t brag because they’re aware that they’ll make other people feel bad, but braggarts tend to systematically overestimate how much the listener will share in their positive emotions.

Bragging is usually motivated by good emotions. They are happy about something that happened or proud of something they have, and they want to tell others because they genuinely believe that those same emotions will be shared. This makes them blind to the negative consequences of bragging. The larger the distance between the braggart and their audience, the wider the empathy gap.

Bragging is due to a phenomenon called the empathy gap. We find it hard to imagine what it's like to be in any emotional state other than the one we're currently in

The other issue is that a lot of our communications now happen in the form of broadcasting. When I’m talking one-to-one, I’m narrowcasting – I’m telling you things that are usually motivated by my goal of being useful to you. But when people talk to many others in a broadcasting context, research has shown that they share more self-promotional content; they become concerned about their image within that group.

This is very consistent with the type of communications that we share online today. Very rarely do we narrowcast. In the modern world we broadcast more, and we do so with larger and larger networks. The idea that electronic communication makes us closer is not necessarily true. We become connected with people with whom we’re not that close with, and that induces us to broadcast and therefore brag even more.

Has social media made us bolder braggarts? Has social media made us bolder braggarts?
Nathan Rupert, Creative Commons (2013) ©

What do these findings mean for people’s behaviour?

  • There are strategies to minimise the empathy gap. Whenever we present ourselves or communicate self-relevant content with others, we need to try to put ourselves in the shoes of the receiver. It seems like a trivial thing to say, but it’s basically what’s driving this difference in perception. We always experience difficulty in figuring out how it would feel to be in a state that is different to our own, so I think the best way would be to try and remember when we were in that state before. Rather than trying to imagine it from the perspective of another person, try to remember what it was like when you were in that position yourself.
  • We should try to be very mindful of who we are speaking to. Sometimes, the empathy gap is naturally decreased because the people we are talking to have a stake in our success. If I tell my mum about my new publication, she will probably share in my emotions because she has an emotional stake in my happiness. Similarly, if I share it with somebody who is close to me for other reasons, that makes them less likely to experience emotions different my own because I know them well. The implication of that would be to consider your audience before you broadcast. Don’t share to everybody, but share to people who are specifically more likely to share in your emotions. There would still be an empathy gap, but the gap would be smaller.

What does it mean for brand behaviour?

  • A lot of research has shown that brands are like humans – they have personality traits. But consumers still tend to think of them as inanimate objects, so the negative responses to a message that could be perceived as bragging may be reduced because people expect brands to be self-promoting. It’s actually the essence of advertising. The problem is when the same principles that are used in advertising shift to interpersonal relationships and we see ourselves as a personal brand.
  • This becomes particularly relevant to brands as they explore different communication channels to self-promote. I’m referring to the use of social media marketing, like using bloggers – sponsoring people for them to tweet or share. In that case, the consequences for the person sharing may be tricky, but I am wary of this extending to the brands as well. I don’t have data that speaks exactly to this, but in that case, the brand becomes part of an interpersonal relationship – it may actually backfire.

Dr. Irene Scopelliti is a senior lecturer in marketing at the Cass Business School, City University London, with research interests in consumer psychology, judgment, and decision making. Read her paper ‘You Call It ‘Self-Exuberance’; I Call It ‘Bragging’: Miscalibrated Predictions of Emotional Responses to Self-Promotion’, here.

Author
Dr. Irene Scopelliti