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Bragging As a Strategy: What Boasting Buys, and Costs, a Candidate

October 11, 2016

Life is full of auditions in which it might seem advantageous, if not outright required, to describe oneself as above average. Think of job interviews, dating or running for president of the United States. A new study led by Patrick Heck, a doctoral Psychology student at Brown, that measured how people judge those who made such boasts and those who didn’t, however, showed that making self-superiority or self-effacement claims is a strategy with considerable complexity and risk, often requiring a person to know whether evidence of their true ability could come to light.

Probably the most intuitive result of the study is that there is a significant tradeoff, a “humility paradox,” in which individuals who claim to be of above-average ability will be perceived as more competent, but sometimes less moral, than those who remain humble. And once actual evidence of ability comes into play, those who unduly inflate their self-image pay the steepest price on both aspects of their character.

“Our biggest theoretical contribution is that the paper casts the decision to claim to be better than others as a strategic choice,” said Heck. “It turns out that if you know the evidence isn’t ever going to show up, then your reputation as a competent person is in good shape when you claim to be better than others — but the opposite is true for your reputation as a moral person.”

And with its multidimensional framework, the study goes much further in revealing more nuanced scenarios in which sometimes the best idea is to keep one’s mouth shut.

Read more of David Orenstein's article on bragging as a strategy.