‘Humblebragging’ is a Bad Strategy, Especially in a Job Interview

While humblebragging runs rampant on Twitter, it's a lousy self-promotion tactic that usually backfires according to recent research by Ovul Sezer, Francesca Gino, and Michael Norton.
by Carmen Nobel

If you've spent any time on Twitter, then you're probably familiar with the "humblebrag"—a brag veiled in a complaint, so as to sound less blatantly like a brag.

Here's an example from the Twitter account of Ari Fleischer, former White House press secretary: They just announced my flight at LaGuardia is number 15 for takeoff. I miss Air Force One!! And here's one from film director Lee Unkrich: Just in case you think all this has gone to my head, within 36 hours of winning the Oscar, I was back home plunging a clogged toilet.

“Not only do we like humblebraggers less, we're less likely to be generous to them”

Humblebragging runs rampant on Twitter, but it turns out to be a lousy self-promotion tactic, especially in business situations such as job interviews, according to recent research by Harvard Business School's Ovul Sezer, Francesca Gino, and Michael I. Norton.

Their research shows that when given the choice to brag or to humblebrag, it's better to straight-out brag.

"When people first join Twitter, one of the first things they notice is that a lot of people humblebrag," says Francesca Gino, a professor in the Negotiation, Organizations & Markets unit at HBS. "We were interested in discovering if this was an effective strategy, since a lot of people seemed to be doing it. Our assumption was that … they think there's an advantage to doing it, given that it's such a common practice. And we found that it's an ineffective strategy."

The researchers hypothesized that humblebragging garners negative impressions because the strategy seems insincere, compared with pure bragging or pure complaining. They tested the hypothesis in a series of five studies, detailed in the paper Humblebragging: A Distinct—and Ineffective—Self-Presentation Strategy.

About That 'biggest Weakness' Interview Question…

In the first study, the researchers created a dataset of 740 items from the Twitter feed @Humblebrag. The brainchild of the late comedy writer Harris Wittels, the page lists real tweets categorized as humblebrags between June 2011 and March 2013. Examples include I just realized muscles & golf don't mesh (from former professional linebacker Shawne Merriman) and Remind me not to stay out til 2am w/@kidrock again. Hurtin' for certain today (from cyclist Lance Armstrong).

Research shows when you're given the choice to brag or to humblebrag, it's better to straight-out brag.

Two independent raters evaluated each item, based on both the likability and the sincerity of the tweets, and the extent to which they perceived each statement as a humblebrag. The identities of the tweeters were concealed, so the raters weren't swayed by celebrity. The results showed that humblebragging was negatively correlated with liking: The more raters viewed a tweet as a humblebrag, the less they liked the tweeter. Humblebrags also received high insincerity ratings, suggesting that disingenuousness is a key reason that people don't like humblebrags, just as the researchers had hypothesized.

The takeaway: Humblebragging is annoying. "It's as if you're trying to say something good about yourself, but then you cover it up with something else," Gino says. "And people don't like that."

The second study looked at humblebragging in the context of job interviews. The research team wanted to gauge how often people humblebrag when faced with the common interview question, "What's your biggest weakness?" Indeed, interviewees are often counseled to put a positive spin on the answer: "I'm overly eager to please my customers," for instance, or "It's hard for me to work on teams because I'm such a perfectionist."

The researchers hired 122 college students to explain how they would answer the interview question, and why they would answer that way. Two independent coders evaluated the responses according to the extent to which they humblebragged, and whether the answers were honest or strategic. Separately, two research assistants rated each response based on whether the respondent seemed like an attractive job candidate.

Results showed that 77 percent of participants had chosen to humblebrag rather than disclose an obvious weakness—the most common answers focused on perfectionism (32.8 percent), working too hard (24.6 percent), and niceness to a fault (14.8 percent).

Of those respondents who did humblebrag, some 66 percent said they did so strategically. But it turned out to be a bad strategy. Overall, the research assistants were much more interested in hiring the honest answerers than the humblebraggers.

The takeaway: Don't humblebrag in a job interview.

Deconstructing The Humblebrag

The next set of studies measured the efficacy of pure complaining and pure bragging against humblebragging.

"If you look at the structure of a humblebrag, there's a part where you're trying to promote yourself, and then there's also a complaint," Gino says. "And so we separated them out to try to understand which one would win—in terms of being liked and having people be willing to help you out."

The researchers asked 201 participants to evaluate the likability and sincerity of a hypothetical person based on a single statement. Participants were randomly assigned to rate one of three statements: "I am so bored of people mistaking me for a model" (a humblebrag), "People mistake me for a model" (a brag), and "I am so bored" (a complaint). The results showed that the complaint received the highest likability scores, while the humblebrag received the lowest. Complaints scored the highest ratings for perceived sincerity, while humblebrags scored the lowest.

Next, the researchers dug into whether humblebragging offers any compensatory benefits, in spite of the perceived insincerity and bad feelings it engenders.

As with the previous study, the team hired 201 participants to evaluate another person based on a single statement. Half read a blatant brag ("I get hit on all the time"), while the other half read a humblebrag ("Just rolled out of bed and still get hit on all the time, so annoying). This time, participants rated the targets not only on likability and sincerity, but also on how attractive they thought the person was.

And as with the previous study, participants saw humblebraggers as less likable and more insincere than blatant braggers. But more importantly, they viewed humblebraggers as less attractive than the braggers.

The takeaway: By public perception, complainers are better than braggers. And humblebraggers are the worst.

By this point in the research, it was clear that humblebragging engenders disdain. But would negative feelings lead to negative actions?

In the final study, the researchers investigated whether people treat humblebraggers worse than they treat braggers. "We predicted that people would allocate less money to humblebraggers than to braggers when given $5 to split in a dictator game," they explain in the paper. (A common tool in experimental economics, the dictator game has one player determining how to split an endowment between himself and another player.)

The prediction bore out. In a series of experiments involving 154 participants, those paired with braggers allocated more money than those paired with humblebraggers.

The takeaway: Seriously, stop humblebragging! "Not only do we like humblebraggers less that braggers, but we're less likely to be generous to them," Gino says.

Next Steps And Lessons Learned

Gino says her team plans to continue its research on humblebragging, homing in on the motivations behind it—that is, why people keep doing it even though it only seems to breed contempt. "One of the things we want to examine in future research is to look at whether having more experience or power leads to more or less humblebragging," she says. "For instance, we started looking at accounts on Twitter of people who are executives or CEOs. This will help us understand how much they humblebrag. We're also going to look at people who recently got promoted to a new job with more power, and see if there's a change in their humblebragging behavior."

In the meantime, Gino is applying some of the lessons learned from the initial research—namely, admitting fallibility rather than couching it.

"I think people have a tendency not to say something negative about themselves because that makes them vulnerable," she says.

Since beginning the humblebrag research, Gino has realized the value of public vulnerability. For instance, when teaching a Negotiation class to first-year MBA students, she shares the story of the time she flubbed an important negotiation situation in her own life. "I tell them about how my postdoc advisor made me an offer, and I accepted it immediately, without letting him talk about it a bit longer, which is clearly not how you should approach a negotiation situation. In fact, he ended up telling me he could improve the offer if I [had] only asked!" she says. "I think the students appreciate hearing the story—we can all learn from our own mistakes (and those of others!)."

That said, Gino recently humblebragged on Twitter about the humblebragging research: "So exhausting to keep up with all the people asking for this paper."

"That was a joke," she explains. "But people likely disliked the statement anyway."

About the Author

Carmen Nobel is the senior editor of Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.

Post A Comment

In order to be published, comments must be on-topic and civil in tone, with no name calling or personal attacks. Your comment may be edited for clarity and length.
    • Praveen Zala
    • Consultant, Independent Consulting
    What Gino and colleagues could take up in addition to continued research of CEOs .... I would like to point another cause of 'humblebragging' - it could also be due to 'cultural influences'. To a person from a conservative, tolerant nation or background, it is easier to humblebrag due to deep roots than to 'brag' or 'complain'. The question that could be answered through further research would be - 'Does cultural influences impact the degree of humblebragging?' It would be easier to append this cultural background logic to the already existing dataset to derive this insight (if it makes sense). P.S - I am aware that negotiations carried out in different parts of the world carry different types of negotiation strategies given the cultural background, I am curious to see if the same applies to humblebragging as well.
    • ajit
    • none, none
    "So exhausting to keep up with all the people asking for this paper." That is funny Carmen. But what if you truly want to be humble, vs egotistic and showing off all the great things you have done. Isn't humility a prized asset? For me it is.
    • Marianne Fleischer
    • principal, founder, Fleischer Communications
    I love this article. For years I had this vague unease with colleagues (or myself) who HUMBLE-BRAGGED but didn't have a word for it. We're all human and humble-bragging is a temptation, before wiser thoughts prevail.

    One suggestion: Pls. edit the article and add a few takeaway solutions, some real next steps on what to do when the humblebrag instinct rears its ugly head. Yes, you gave good advice to share a story where we flubbed up. Of course. Yet in your opinion, what is the best way for corp. storytellers and public speakers to share experience/wins without sounding like a braggart or a humblebraggart?

    One solution is to embed the "win" in a A) LONGER anecdote that B) shows both a vulnerable flub AND a win. Love to hear more ideas.
    • AAnetA
    • Executive
    Very interesting research and a bit surprising to know that humble bragging is viewed much more negatively than out and out bragging. I always thought being humble in any way was more desirable than out and out bragging. I guess the honesty, integrity, and sincerity factors out way them all. This is the best outcome to note. These qualities still carry weight in society!
    • Madison
    This article points out the false humility associated with the "humblebrag".
    I wonder whether our use of filler words such as, "kinda" or "sorta", attempt this same false humility. If someone interjects "sorta" in the middle of a declaration, do they mean what they are saying or not? Does it mean they intend a weaker impact than what the statement would have without the "dilution"? Or, perhaps they intend the full impact, but assume that by saying "sorta", we are descending to a tacit humility protocol.
    The comparison between humblebragging (being indirect with one's intention) versus true complaints and brags (direct intentions) in this report seem to favor the latter.
    Let's remove diluting words, and indirect intention, in order to communicate clearly what we mean.
    • bowlweevils
    • a few blocks away from HBS, less than usual
    The audience for the statement is important here. We're in a context where the person making the statement is making it to attract attention to themself. Whether a job interview or tweeting, the person is speaking with intent. And even in the dictator game, even if the dictator is told that the person they are playing with was told that that person was told by the experimenters that they had to humblebrag, the dictator is still likely to impute intentionality to the other player.

    Essentially, someone is saying to someone else whom they know they will be judged by "please like me, here's why!"

    Things are different when you are in a (positive) relationship with people already. When a stranger pops up and says something great about themself, it's much more likely to be interpreted as bragging than when someone you know says something great, whether the person is a spouse or a shareholder. Then gushing about the promotion you got or about the quarterly increase in shareholder profits isn't bragging, it's information that is valuable to the person receiving it.

    So Marianne's question about the "best way for corp. storytellers and public speakers to share experience/wins without sounding like a braggart or a humblebraggart" is that it depends on the audience. If they're positively invested in you, you aren't bragging. And your humblebrag is probably going to sound closer to snatching victory from near defeat, or a moment of a jointly recognized absence of something positive. At least for good friends and happy spouses. Shareholders might not be thrilled at the reminder that things used to be better.

    It is just going to be extremely hard to say anything distinctively positive about yourself or your organization to strangers who have no knowledge already, or who have knowledge but have a negative perception and aren't looking to be persuaded. You need to have someone who is at least looking for a reason to like you. Otherwise it's going to be a tough sale.

    And tough sale often means repetition. No one would think that drinking soda was a particularly good idea if we weren't told multiple times every day just how great soda is. Soda is certainly bragging, constantly bragging. Eventually you'll believe it, if you can't escape it. But if you spend some time in Europe, you'll find that your devotion to soda weakens. However, you will start to crave carbonated bottled water.

    But there is a second issue at play. In many cases, the brag and the humble brag are more specific than the complaint, and this may affect the ratings. Take the example where the complaints were rated highest:

    "I am so bored of people mistaking me for a model." (a humblebrag)
    "People mistake me for a model." (a brag)
    "I am so bored." (a complaint)

    The humblebrag and the brag are both extraordinary statements compared to the complaint. Being mistaken for a model is highly positive, being bored is an everyday occurrence. What would happen if the complaint was "being in jail for armed robbery sucks"? There are probably more people in jail, or who have been in jail, for armed robbery that there are models or people who have been models or genuinely mistaken for models. But I don't think the complainer would get as high a rating there.
    Similarly, what if the "brag" was merely something positive, like "I'm feeling happy today". Is it even a brag anymore? Probably not. But I think that statements like "I'm feeling happy today" would rank higher than complaints like "being in jail for armed robbery sucks". We just don't have a special word for things that suck that you deserve. In fact, something like "that sucks but you deserve it" would probably be the response to the "jail for armed robbery sucks" complaint.
    The ranking of complaint -> brag -> humblebrag may really result from the greater positive deviation from neutral of the brag (very/extraordinarily positive) and humblebrag (extraordinarily positive/so rare you should be grateful so stop whining) than the negative deviation from neutral of the complaint.
    Compare the humblebrag to the comic stereotype of chutzpah: killing your parents and then asking the judge for leniency because you're an orphan. Don't compare it to being bored or a bit chilly.
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Private Limited
    Humblebragging is a cynical art of praising oneself in order to hide any weakness(es) well known to the person or, in some cases, not so well known but being rightly perceived by others as such. People who resist calling a spade a spade are overwhelmed by a desire to show off via (undeserved) self appreciation. They have a mistaken belief that the truth will get suppressed and the opposite party will take him/her on face value. Thereby they try to deceive and very soon get exposed leading to their failure.
    This is true also in the area of applying for job and then facing the interview board. Not only can excesses mentioned in applications and CVs get revealed but the expression before the board while answering questions would also smack of such an egotist approach.
    To succeed we need to remain humble and reveal what we really are. Progress can follow only if we have analysed ourselves very objectively and are conscious of what we lack so that steps could be taken regularly to improve.
    An interesting study !
    • Ken Johnson
    • President, Ken Johnson Consulting
    I would love to see this research continue by looking at the problem from the other side, particularly from the HR professionals' side. Given that a standard interview question for years has been "What is your greatest fault" and that the standard advice for years has always been "Never reveal a true fault, use a strength taken to a fault such as working so hard you don't take enough time for yourself (the humblebrag and usually a deception of some sort), I assume HR interviewers have heard this kind of answer thousands of times. I would love to see research on what they are trying to achieve with this question, and how they actually evaluate the honest fault answer vs. the standard advice humblebrag. Who thinks they are fooling whom here?
    • Western Canada
    • Govn't
    When a person frequently humblebrags, then it is annoying. Or they humbledrag several times on the same personal characteristic/achievement.

    It's tough to express humility in job/work environments where there is always slight edge/challenge of meeting service expectations, etc. -Otherwise keeping one's mouth shut or deflecting one's own accomplishments all the time, means being a doormat.

    There is nothing wrong to say: I'm stoked over getting xxxx award...if the person genuinely did the work. It's matter of giving credit to those involved.
    • Stephen Karel
    • CEO/Pres., Karel&Company
    I had to read this twice before it had sunk in. One, I have never either ever sent or received a twitter, so I have never heard the expression "humblebragging." Two, even though I have never heard of this expression, I think that if I was interviewing someone whom I thought was bragging unnecessarily, the interview it would end very abruptly.

    Why one would waste his time investigating this is the bigger question.
    • bowlweevils
    • nordic inclined, would like more time
    Stephen Karel's comment sounds like a humblebrag to me.
    • Muhammad Al Waeli
    • PhD Student, University of Tehran
    It would also be interesting to see some research on humble bragging that is expressed in visual, and not only write or spoken forms. This kind of research would be possible through social media and for all cultures, since not only is a pictures "worth a thousand words" but also the "words" a picture saying are generally understandable to all people and it is therefore easy to identify "humbragpics" or in some instances also "humblebragclips".

    In one of the MENA country, there is an expression used in social media to describe politicians posing while doing good things and pretending that they are not aware somebody is filming or taking pictures, although they make sure that the media is aware of their actives, or worse, they have their own media people following them around while they are doing such activities. For example, they let people take pictures of them visiting slums and meeting with homeless people, help in cleaning streets, or buying food from street vendors although they'd never do such thing in normal circumstances.

    The numbers of such pictures increase in social media before the elections. People call them "take-a-pic-while-I-pretend-I-am-not-aware-pics".

    There is also another angle to this: it seems that the acceptance of humblebrag pics or talk differs based on the liability and personal history of the humblebraggers. Politicians who are viewed as credible or who are generally liked by the public normally get away with such things and their humblebrag pics or talk is circulated with praise on social media, whereas politicians who are not don't get away with it and their pics or talk is circulated with some negative comments.

    So an interesting question would be, how do factors such as
    'credibility' and 'popularity' in addition to 'culture' affect the acceptance of humblegragging?
    • Frank Wells
    • Chairman, Managing Director, Hoyle Tanner Engineering
    I get the sense that there is a greatly diminished social value in exercising restraint, especially in the realm of social media. I can vaguely remember when the phrase "It's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game", was looked upon as a measure of integrity and honor. That notion was cast aside for "Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing" and ultimately for "In your Face!" Bragging is the dominant vehicle for attention and self-expression, and it seems possible to me that Humblebragging is an attempt to hang on to a vestige of humility that once held some sway in our culture.
    I liked the article very much.
    • Adjoa Acquaah-Harrison
    I like aspects of all the postings before this because each has shed more light on what I knew before. I, however, appreciate Praveen's sensitivity to the role culture plays in negotiation strategies. As beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, perception of humblebragging, or not, has a lot to do with culture, values, and what we might know and maybe expect of the person across the aisle from us. Perhaps more can be brought to the table in terms of communication - self-disclosures and clarifying questions. Could it also be that it takes one humblebragger to know the other? Let's not be too hasty then to assign labels then. Finally, I wouldn't worry about a humblebragger much because like everything else, there is a price to pay for choices one makes and lessons might be learned as they come.
    • Minerva
    For a great and humorous example of 'humblebragging' check out the Grey's Anatomy episode where Christina Yang is interviewing cardiac fellows to replace her. One guy really earned his nickname "Humblebragger" :)
    • Dr. N.R.U.K.Kartha
    • CEO UTMCS, Trivandrum, UTMCS, Trivandrum, 695010,India
    Humble bragging in an interview affects only the members of the board, but in social media like face book, it has become a nuisance. Thanks for the input.
    Dr. N.R.U.K.Kartha dr.nruk1944@gmail.com
    • Debra Feldman
    • JobWhiz, Executive Talent Agent, JobWhiz.com
    I've noticed that I gravitate to articles written by these authors, members of the Negotiations, Organizations, and Markets department. Would you please help me decipher why research such as this one about humblebragging would spike interest among specialists in Negotiations, Organizations, and Markets? Thanks for sharing your insights and starting very valuable discussions.
    • Carl Parks
    • L&OD Consultant
    "Humblebragging"... In its purest form, associates an individual's view of themselves in the following perspectives:

    A. Accomplished/accomplishment
    B. Seeking further accolades/positive review
    C. Social pandering and/or perception
    D. Lack of self-comprehension and humility.

    The degree in which the aforementioned is applied: will depend upon the context of the humblebragging, and to who the intended audience is (closely associated or disassociated). The closer you are to the humbblebragger - the more what they are communicating may seem to be an inadvertent joke, or play on words. But, to the (unknowing participant) - it may come off as undercutting, and self-absorbing (i.e., a plug of ones-self without associated meaning).

    Honesty, in revealing (+ or -) information in most circumstances, is usually the best policy (as we have seen where over embellishment can get you... In today's world). If the honorable mention of individual accomplishments makes sense within the communication - by all means it should be shared (a shared/rationale understanding will be formed). But, when it is used as a means to subliminally convey your superiority (for lack of a better word) and/or higher value you have placed upon yourself regarding a matter/circumstance... You are then truly walking a tight rope between honesty, and self promotion.

    Simply put, there is an old saying: You can have all the book smarts in the world, but no common sense. The same could be said for an individual that masks bragging with being humble (the two are not mutually exclusive - to one another).