Your kid got into “a school” in Cambridge, Mass. You ran a marathon. You want to share these achievements with the world, but it’s hard to know how without coming across as arrogant. What do you do? Resort to a humblebrag: “Ugh, Ivy League tuition payments, here we come.”
Humblebragging is probably as old as humanity, but it’s found its sweet spot on social media. There’s a Twitter account that collects the best humblebrags (“Geniuses @amazon just recommended my own book to me. Already read this one, thanks guys!”) and chances are there’s one sitting in your newsfeed right now. For those wanting to do a little self-promotion (which, to be fair, is all of us), the humblebrag seems like the perfect construction—a brag leavened with a complaint that lets one trumpet accomplishments while still seeming modest.
Except, of course, it doesn’t work that way. Humblebrags are transparent and a new study out of — wait for it —Harvard Business School finds that they’re actually a big social liability.
“It’s even worse than bragging and even worse than simply complaining,” says Ovul Sezer, a doctoral student and lead author of the study, which is currently under peer review.
To assess the effectiveness of humblebragging as a self-promotion strategy, Sezer and her coauthors ran five different experiments. The first was a mock job interview, in which participants were asked to list their biggest weaknesses. Seventy-five percent engaged in humblebragging, naming traits like “I’m a perfectionist” and “I work too hard.” Subsequent studies measured how people perceive humblebrags. The researchers found that humblebragging comes off worse than straight bragging or complaining. This is mainly because the act of trying to conceal a boast makes a person seem disingenuous, a cardinal social sin. On top of that, humblebragging is unpersuasive. “It makes you seem like you possess that trait even less than the person who brags,” says Sezer. (Read: truly attractive people don’t need to humblebrag.)
Given how self-defeating it is to humblebrag, you might expect the practice to die out. That is, if you knew nothing at all about human beings. We’re born self-promoters and also chronically bad at recognizing how others perceive us. In other words, you might tell your friends, “I wish I weren’t so good at humblebragging, but I just can’t help it.”Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.