The Psychology of Bragging
You are asked at the cocktail party what you do. “Well,” you respond with enthusiasm, “I’m so excited right now. I just graduated with my degree in hospitality.” “Oh, a future barista,” says the other guest, swirling his drink. “I guess we can’t all get Ph.D.’s in science like I did.”
You run into a former neighbour at the airport. You are taking off for a well-earned holiday, travelling “cattle class”. She, on the other hand, is travelling for work, sitting in the VIP lounge awaiting her business class seat. “Yeah,” she says, “I’m on the road a lot. It’s kind of a pain, but I knew when I took on this high-powered management job that I would have to oversee all the branches in different states.”
Does any of this sound familiar? Is there any sense of, “Gee, it was a great day before I ran into this person; now I feel as flat as three-day-old champagne”? Beyond that, you may be suddenly questioning what’s wrong with your life, doubting everything from your accomplishments to the way you look. If so, you are not alone, either in being subject to others’ bragging, or in feeling the emotionally flattening effects of it.
Just why we as human beings are so prone to boasting has been the subject of much recent psychological (and neuroscientific) attention. Equally, researchers are now looking into the question of why we hate it so much when we are subject to others’ boasting. This article looks into both those questions and offers a few tips for dealing with a braggart (or helping a client who is).
Definition and distinction: boasting and pride
Before we go further, let’s clarify. Dictionary.com defines boasting as speaking “with exaggeration and excessive pride, especially about oneself” (2012). There is a sense with bragging that we are self-glorifying. But is having pride always bad?
Psychotherapist Richard Joelson (2018) clarifies that pride in itself is not the problem. (Appropriate) pride is thought of as a feeling of self-respect and personal worth: a feeling of satisfaction with one’s own (or another’s) achievements. It is an integral component of healthy self-esteem and a crucial part of each person’s sense of self.
With bragging, conversely, we are talking about excessive pride. Most of us were taught as children not to brag or “skite” through sayings such as, “Don’t get too big for your breeches” or “Your head will be so big it won’t get in the door” (Joelson, 2018). And we mostly dislike it intensely (ok, hate it!) when we must endure it from others. Yet, even knowing that, many of us give into the urge to do over-the-top showcasing of our own accomplishments, especially given the capabilities for widespread self-promotion made possible by social media. What’s going on here?
Why we brag – and the consequences
Talking about ourselves: The ultimate reward
Noting the millions of carefully curated postings on the likes of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, psychologists at Harvard began to delve into the question of why sharing about our own experience is so important to us that we can’t seem to stop doing it. They further wished to investigate just how rewarding it is. The psychologists set up a study comprised of five brain imaging experiments and found, using fMRI, that when subjects shared information about themselves, the same areas of the brain activated as those that light up when we are eating food or having sex!
Interestingly, in order to be allowed to share about themselves, subjects had to forgo financial reward that they could gain if they were willing to respond to questions about others. Many passed on this reward, preferring the reward of answering questions about themselves (Newman, 2013). Robert Lee Hotz, Senior Science Correspondent at the Wall Street Journal, sums it up this way in a short clip on YouTube. At a synaptic level, he said, the researchers found that “the brain is so rewarded by my experience of my conversation about me” (Hotz, 2012).
A favourable impression through bragging?
So, we get a pleasure “hit” on the brain – like a dopamine hit – by talking about ourselves. And every person with connectivity can do that endlessly, by setting up social media accounts which offer an infinite number of opportunities for boasting. In fact, some career websites encourage us to do that, claiming that we will land better jobs if we are great at self-promotion. Moreover, we have role-modelling for doing that through the celebrities whose continued status in the media is dependent on their capacity to brag just a little, hopefully gracefully. All of that would give us the impression that we might be able to create a better impression in others’ minds if we boast. That’s not, however, what Irene Scopelliti (a behavioural scientist) and her colleagues at City University London in England found.
They asked 131 workers on the crowdsourcing site Amazon Mechanical Turk to complete a short survey in which they either recalled a time they bragged about something or had someone else brag to them. They were then asked to describe their own emotions and what they believed were the emotions of the other person in the interaction. As Scopelliti explains in her TED talk, the people who chose to talk about themselves significantly overestimated the extent to which their listeners were happy for them and proud of them when they bragged – and they significantly underestimated how much they annoyed others by their bragging. Perhaps even more significantly, both the “recipients” (the people who chose to recall someone bragging to them) and the self-promoters had a hard time imagining how they would feel if the roles were reversed (Scopelliti, 2016; Ghose, 2015).
The Empathy Gap
These findings were just begging to be followed up, so in a second experiment, Scopelliti and team asked subjects to provide a profile about themselves. Half of the subjects were instructed to write their profiles in a way that would make them “interesting” to others reading them. Profile writers were asked to rate how interesting they believed their profiles would appear to others. Profile “raters” then read the profiles and rated them on how interesting they were. The findings showed that there was zero correlation between the profile providers’ predictions and how much the raters did like the profiles. Moreover, those who had been instructed to make their profiles “interesting” (i.e., the subjects who ended up bragging) were liked less by profile raters than those who had not been issued any instructions.
Scopelliti explains the differences between subjects’ perceptions of themselves and others’ perceptions of them as the “empathy gap”: the measure of just how hard it is for someone to genuinely put themselves into another person’s shoes. Michael Norton, a behavioural scientist at Harvard Business School who was not involved with the Scopelliti studies, noted that “we tend to be pretty self-focused; we tend not to understand that people think differently about the world” (Ghose, 2015; Scopelliti, 2016).
Fixing the insecurity of oversharing
So how do we close the empathy gap, and really connect with people: or do we? It will come as no surprise to readers that many experts writing about bragging have pegged the insecurity of the bragger. Some liken it, especially in its compulsiveness, to getting a “fix” or a fill of something, perhaps to distract themselves from an inner emptiness, such as that experienced by narcissists (Polard, 2016).
Overt and covert brags
One way some boasters think they have found to lessen the impact of the brag is that they do it covertly. Rather than the overt one-upmanship of a boast such as, “My son got the highest score on the university entrance exam”, they may employ a brag-disguised-as-something-else.
The complaint. The hypothetical neighbour at the airport in the introduction, for example, is engaging a complaint: decrying all the job travel, when the real thing she wants you to notice is that she has a high-status job which requires it.
The “humblebrag.” You can also find the falsely humble type of boast in someone who has an experience and loudly, publicly, declares “humble thanks to all the amazing” (and of course high-status) people named as contributing to the experience. The boastful metacommunication here? “You need to recognise that I am important, because I have been associating with these high-status people”. The father noting how much time is taken by having to go watch all his daughter’s musical (or sports?) performances at high-class venues is in a similar brag-boat.
Insecurity at the base of it
These are only two examples of brags dressed as something else (so that we perhaps won’t notice the brag?). In an entertaining article, an author who identifies as “Less Penguiny” manages to identify no fewer than 17 modes of “showing off” (Less Penguiny, 2019). He points out, however, that these are all still brags. And several authors (Ghose, 2015; Krauss Whitbourne, 2015), acknowledge that – even wearing a disguise – the brag doesn’t work; we still hate being the recipient, whether we are made to feel inferior in an overt or a covert way.
We can recognise the insecurity behind the boasting, insists Dr. Susan Whitbourne, Professor Emerita of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, by noticing four signs:
- The braggart tries to make you feel insecure about yourself. In fact, they are probably projecting their insecurities onto others in order to be able to examine them.
- The boaster needs to showcase his/her accomplishments. The sense of inferiority at the heart of constant recitation of their great lifestyle, elite education, or genius children’s achievements are attempts to convince themselves that they are ok.
- The braggart does the “humblebrag” (as above) far too often. Again, look out for self-deprecatory statements that are really excuses to drop important names or identify high-status details (like the conspicuous late-model Mercedes in the background of the Facebook picture where the person in the foreground is getting you to notice his new t-shirt).
- The show-off frequently complains that things aren’t good enough. Examples here include the person complaining about the work travel for the high-profile job, or the rather snobbish negative assessment of an expensive restaurant meal or a performance whose tickets cost a fortune. Complainer-braggarts may be proclaiming their high standards as a way of demonstrating that they are truly better than everyone else, but it is more than that. They are also trying to prove that they hold themselves to a more demanding set of self-assessment criteria (Whitbourne, 2015).
If you are wanting to apply the “N” word (narcissism) to these attempts to boost self-esteem, you’re probably not far off the mark, says Whitbourne (2015). But what’s the solution? How can we manage this most annoying habit in those with whom we interact, or how can we help clients who are dealing with braggarts?
Andrea Polard, PsyD (2016), offers a few tips:
Ask to switch the subject, or just switch it. This can be accompanied by declarations that we aren’t easily impressed, or the type to admire others’ good fortune. At the very least, the boaster may feel awkward in continuing his earth-shattering revelations of incredible attainment.
Boast about yourself, then self-correct, as if suddenly realising how bad it sounds: “Oh, excuse me; I guess I’ve been bragging, and it’s probably better if we don’t do that; it only makes others feel bad”.
Share a quick vignette about others bragging (use some celebrity), sharing how much more likable the person would be if only they didn’t boast so much.
Tell them what’s happening for you. You might not have enough relationship with some braggarts to make this worthwhile, but there are probably also people in your life with whom you could share how alienating it is to hear constant bragging. This can be followed up with the question of whether the person is interested in connecting with you, too.
Just walk away. Not everyone is willing to change, and where narcissism is the culprit, change is particularly difficult. We don’t have to be everyone’s friend, and walking away may make it easier to maintain a stance of compassion for the person and the terrible life they must be living if they feel compelled to skite all the time (Polard, 2016).
Few of us would disagree that boasting is, at best, an ugly habit that reveals our worst side, and may destroy our relationships (or prevent them from getting going). But once we understand the psychology behind the other person’s attempts to elevate themselves, their misguided efforts to feel ok about themselves don’t have to have the opposite effect on us anymore.
- Dictionary.com. (2012). Boast. Collins English Dictionary. Retrieved on 6 November, 2019, from: Website.
- Ghose, T. (2015). Braggers gonna brag, but it usually backfires. Human Nature. Retrieved on 5 November, 2019, from: Website.
- Hotz, R.L. (2012, 7 May). The science of bragging and boasting. Wall Street Journal. Retrieved on 5 November, 2019, from: Website.
- Joelson, R.B. (2018). Pride or boasting: What’s the difference? Psychology Today. Retrieved on 5 November, 2019, from: Website.
- Less Penguiny. (2019). The best article ever written about bragging. Lesspenguiny.com. Retrieved on 6 November, 2019, from: Website.
- Newman, S. (2013). Why some people can’t stop bragging. Psychology Today. Retrieved on 5 November, 2019, from: Website.
- Polard, A.F. (2016). 5 ways to deal with someone who never stops bragging. Psychology Today. Retrieved on 5 November, 2019, from: Website.
- Scopelliti, I. (2016). Why do people brag? TedX Talk. Retrieved on 5 November, 2019, from: Website.