There are certain times in life when boasting seems like a good idea — during a job interview or, say, when running for President of the United States. We’ve seen plenty of that during this election cycle. In July, Republican party nominee Donald Trump even bragged to a CBS News reporter about his humility: “I think I am actually humble. I think I’m much more humble than you would understand.”
But does bragging help your reputation? It depends on the situation, according to a new study in the journal Social Psychology. People often believe you if you brag about an above-average ability, yet they also perceive you as less moral. Plus, there’s a risk with each boast — if evidence proves that your assertion is false (like claiming to be humble, then adding that you’re exceptionally humble), then you will be perceived as both less moral and less competent than others.
“There’s a trade-off when you’re deciding whether or not to claim to be better than other people,” says study coauthor Patrick Heck, a graduate student at Brown University.
Heck and Brown psychology professor Joachim Krueger conducted a series of online experiments to investigate the benefits and consequences of bragging, or “self-enhancement,” as academics like to call it. They asked 400 participants to read descriptions of fictitious men who said they scored better or worse than average on a general intelligence test or a moral aptitude test. In some cases, the participants also learned the actual test scores associated with each man, so they’d know whether bragging or self-effacement was supported by evidence. Then participants were asked to rate the competence and morality of men in each situation.
When the results were in, bragging always resulted in reduced perception of morality: Participants viewed humble individuals as more moral and braggarts as less moral. Yet there was one clear condition where there was an advantage to bragging — if two men both performed better than average on a test, participants perceived the braggart as more competent than the humble man.
That benefit of bragging dissipates if contrary evidence comes to light. When participants found out that a braggart was lying, he was perceived as significantly less moral and competent than anyone else. So if you choose to brag, says Heck, make sure that you either deserve to do so or that contrary evidence will never be revealed.
“The worst thing you can do, in all of our studies, is claim to be better than other people when the evidence does, or could, show up to prove you wrong,” he notes. “When evidence comes into play, the best thing you can do for morality is simply be humble.”
You can even be the humblest — just don’t brag about it.