Should You Brag At Work?

Boasting and bragging are a natural part of human interaction; we've also got the "humblebrag," where boasts are minimized or hidden behind a veneer of self-effacement. All are an attempt to tell others that we're worthy, interesting, deserve respect and rewards; but the psychology of how they're actually received is a lot more complicated, because we're not prone to believe boasts as gospel unless they come from an incredibly gifted confidence trickster. Psychologist Susan Speer identified the two potential issues with self-praise: epistemology (whether what you say can be proven), and social norms (wherein we expect people to be impressive but also personally modest, a tightrope that celebrities and prominent figures tread with caution). Navigating those in situations like job interviews where you desperately want to impress, but also don't want to look like an a**hole, can create difficulties; but there's some science to help.

A new study from Brown University has looked into the complex trade-offs of boasting about yourself and your performance, and has revealed several lessons: if you're boasting without foundation, make sure you won't get caught; and don't make any comments, self-effacing or not, if you're a person of low confidence. It seems that boasting, dependent on whether you can actually back it up or not, can be either a dangerous or an advantageous strategy, but that doing it successfully depends on your aims and how you work it.

Want to boost yourself up for your next job interview or raise? Let's get into how to do it.

Why Do We Boast?

A study in 2012 revealed what we've always known: people get a lot of pleasure out of talking about themselves. They enjoy it so much that, in the study conditions, they were willing to forgo financial rewards in order to talk about themselves rather than a more neutral topic (or, god forbid, somebody else); and when they did draw the subject of conversation back to themselves, their brain showed distinct signs of pleasure and happiness.

But just being self-involved isn't the essence of boasting: it's also an attempt at climbing the social hierarchy and proving our worth to others. The essence of boasting's psychology is to lift our social position, gain rewards, and, in the case of something like a job interview or networking scenario, impress our value on others in the hope of getting something reciprocal for it (a date, a call-back, a well-paid position).

Does It Actually Make Us Look Good?

Self-advertisement isn't inherently a bad thing, but humans themselves don't seem to be particularly good at it on occasion; a study in 2015 found that there is often a drastic mismatch between how braggers think their audience feels, and how their audience is actually experiencing the boast. Braggers often believe their audience is proud, impressed, or envious — while more often the reactions are actually annoyance, boredom, or anger. This happens even though we know how we feel when somebody else boasts to us! We're bad at learning, it seems.

There are, however, situations in which boasting may not be the best idea, and the new study out of Brown University lays out the scenarios pretty clearly: depending on what you're going for, you may want to lay off the bragging altogether.

How To Brag Smarter

The Brown University scientists were studying how we perceive different aspects of bragging: does boasting increase how people view our intelligence and morality? What if what we're boasting about doesn't actually correspond to reality? How badly can a bit of a boast, or a bit of self-effacement, harm you?

Their methods were pretty intriguing. They did two major experiments. In one, volunteers were shown pages where fictional people described how they did on a test: some boasted they'd done well, while others moaned that they'd done poorly. They were also shown the "scores" of the people on the test, so they could see who was being accurate, who was being unduly humble, and who was just making it up.

Here's the interesting bit: some of the volunteers were told that the test itself measured morality, while others were told it measured intelligence. They were then asked to rate the competence and morality of the people who'd done the tests — and the results are pretty cool. When it came to intelligence tests, the people who bragged about it and got high scores were thought to be the most competent; keeping humble, even if you did well, doesn't serve you well when you want to be seen as smart. But humble people, whether they did well or badly, were viewed as very moral.

The two people who did the worst for the volunteers? People who bragged about their performance on either intelligence or morality, and didn't actually do all that well. The volunteers thought those people were the least competent and the least moral of all of the test-takers. Lesson 1: if you're going to say you got a top degree in your job interview, for heaven's sake make sure it's actually true. (This is a bragging necessity that Cindy Gallop, the advertising consultant and founder of IfWeRanTheWorld, also emphasized to Bustle as helpful in salary negotiations. "What you’re saying is, 'This is how I demonstrate my value to the company, this is how I would like to see that value rewarded, I am delivering all of these things,'" she said. Concrete evidence always matters.)

What about if the people assessing your boasts don't have the actual evidence to back it up, though? Can boasting help you out there? The Brown scientists tested that, too. In situations where the volunteers just had peoples' opinions of their performance to go on, they viewed those who boasted as more competent, but less moral. Those who were self-effacing, meanwhile, were thought of as less competent without evidence to back them up. Lesson 2: don't be self-effacing if there's nothing to prove you wrong, because people will just assume the worst.

Why This Especially Matters For Women

Women, in particular, tend to be overly humble in modern professional environments, where expectations of feminine "modesty" clash with a masculine context in which self-aggrandizing can be part of the process of climbing the ladder. A 2014 study found that professional women were significantly more likely to brag about a friend's professional accomplishments than their own, for fear of violating conceptions about their own morality and "ladylike" nature.

This is backed up by Gallop, who noted, "Most men negotiate without taking things personally; some women do, but on the whole, women have enormous trouble doing that. So the key thing is, this is all business. It’s a business environment; this is a business conversation. It is not about 'Oh my god! My boss won’t like me anymore if ... blah blah blah.' It’s about 'I want my boss to know that I’m a really tough business person, and if I get pushback from my boss I’m reminding him or her of that.'"

(It's worth noting that all the fictional test-takers in the Brown University study were male; it's entirely possible that perceptions of female competence and morality in the face of boasting or self-effacement would be subtly different, considering how un-boastful we're supposed to be in cultural terms.)

But the Brown study should give both boasters and self-effacers food for thought. By all means, give yourself a boost in interviews if you have evidence to back it up; it'll help your overall perception. And if you feel like putting yourself down to look humble, stop yourself immediately.

Images: Pexels, Giphy