When Is It Good to Brag, and When Is It Ill-Advised?

New research on self-enhancement in personal and professional relationships.

KEY POINTS

  • Bragging is seen as a social liability, but that’s overly simplistic; sometimes we need to share positives with others.
  • Bragging is problematic in many cases, but fear of being seen as a braggart can interfere with intimacy in close relationships.
  • Learning how to distinguish when bragging is negative and when sharing positive news is healthy is a key achievement.

We are socialized that it is bad to brag. And, it often is — perhaps, by definition, always given that bragging almost never has a positive spin. With the possible exception of “bragging rights” — in which boldly building oneself up is earned and therefore, socially sanctioned, bragging is out.

Does pride always go before the fall, or is there room for healthy appreciation?

Whether touting one’s perceived strengths is deemed “arrogant” or “narcissistic”, or gentle but objectionable “humble-bragging”, you risk painting a big target on your back when you appear proud. Yup, it can be adaptive to put one’s accomplishments out in front, even necessary in today’s dog-eat-dog competitive world of marketing, in which we are less likely to trumpet one another’s talents and deeds.

It can be a sign of a healthy sense of self to feel comfortable with one’s accomplishments. And that shows in how we speak about ourselves. Folks with social anxiety or awkwardness may have trouble making effective decisions, leading to escalating uncertainty about what to do, and (often) ultimately withdrawal. More secure individuals don’t evoke such strong negative feelings in the listener.

Elevating your brand or inviting envy and retaliation?

Self-promotion tends to split the world down the middle — one group of people are cool with you, while another group disapproves. If anyone is actually paying attention, that is. That’s why on social media promotional messages require metered repetition and novelty — getting a signal to stand out from the background noise is no mean feat.

Researchers are also interested in bragging’s impact. In their recent Journal of Personality paper, authors Chan, Reese, and Ybarra (2021) look at when to brag, and when to keep it under wraps. With most relationships, they report, bragging — or “capitalization” when used by researchers to describe the phenomenon non-judgmentally — is typically a no-no. It backfires easily, so people avoid capitalizing with people who have been unsupportive or those who are perceived to be insecure or anxious.

Children, they note, learn by age 8 bragging is bad. More so, we are expected to downplay compliments and accomplishments as a less risky strategy, even resorting to self-deprecation in order to maintain status.

Here’s an important observation: research shows that those who have intimacy problems, for example, people with avoidant or dismissive attachment style, also decline to capitalize. This is key because opening up to others is required for intimacy. Numerous studies show that self-disclosure brings people closer, in any setting where sharing is appropriate.

Chan and colleagues note, there is a complex risk-benefit analysis going on in deciding whether or not to capitalize. This is especially interesting, and not as well-studied when it comes to capitalizing on close personal relationships, like friendship.

A series of studies dissects the anatomy of bragging and capitalization

They conducted a series of studies to explore this question, too many to describe completely. In the first series, they looked at factors related to the person deciding whether or not to mention positives. Participants imagined whether they would tell a close friend over dinner who asked, “How’s work going?” about a recent promotion. Unsurprisingly, people inclined to see bragging as a bad thing were less likely to share the good news.

More interesting, people who were concerned were more likely to guess that their friends would think worse of them, rather than being happy for them. In a related follow-up, researchers found that people were more likely to tell a close friend about positive news if they thought the friend would find out later on from someone else. These findings were true for 15 different types of positive events. The biggest factor remained to what extent sharing positive news was expected to be taken as bragging.

In the second series of studies, researchers looked at the receiver, the “target” for positive news. When is it a problem to capitalize on oneself, and when do we miss out when we choose to keep it to ourselves? They used a similar scenario, imaging whether a friend had decided to tell them good news over dinner, or hearing about it later on social media.

People who found out after the fact felt worse than those who imagined hearing first-hand. They felt devalued, overall not as important, trusted, or as close a friend. The cost of missed capitalization is high, levying a potentially heavy toll on relationships, an effect strong with close friends but not so strong with more casual acquaintances where sharing is not required to affirm intimacy. A third series of studies generally confirmed the same results under different circumstances — the main factor is whether sharing positive news is taken as bragging.

In the fourth and final study, researchers looked at key personality traits to find out who is more likely to see capitalization as bragging and hold back. They looked at extraversion, the tendency to self-monitor, empathy level, and ability to see things from the other’s point of view (perspective taking). Participants received the same scenario, deciding whether to share positive news with a close friend over dinner.

Again, people who saw capitalization as bragging were more likely to clam up for fear of negative consequences. More extraverted and empathic people, better able to take others’ perspectives, were more likely to open up, presumably more socially adept. Even after factoring out the effect of personality, those who saw sharing positive news as bragging were less likely to share important positive life events than those with a healthier take on capitalization.

Self-monitoring, contrary to expectations, did not impact the decision, though one might think greater self-consciousness would lead to minimizing the risk of being seen as bragging. The role of self-reflection is important but complex, requiring further contemplation.

Putting research on capitalization and bragging to work in our own lives

Ask yourself: How do I see sharing positive news with close friends? Am I worried it will be seen as bragging, or do I understand that people close to me want and expect me to talk about the good things and won’t respond negatively? Why do I see it the way I do, and is that working for me? Many times, we are instilled with strong attitudes and beliefs about self-enhancement during formative years, beliefs that do not always serve us, and that sometimes keep us down.

Disclosure of good news not only tends to increase intimacy — depending on the situation and the way we communicate — but is also required to maintain and deepen existing relationships. There is a huge difference between avoiding bragging and missed capitalization — understanding the subtlety empowers us to make decisions about when to put it out there, and when to save it for later. Exercise discretion with acquaintances, and allow self-disclosure to unfold while you get to know one another.

On average, err perhaps on the side of opening up with trusted friends, aware that fears of bragging may be self-defeating at those times. Better yet, have the conversation about bragging versus joyful sharing, and get it out in the open — that will also deepen relationships… and help you learn more about your friends.

References

Chan T, Reese ZA, Ybarra O. Better to brag: Underestimating the risks of avoiding positive self‐disclosures in close relationships. Journal of Personality, 2021, April 4. https://doi.org/10.1111/jopy.12635

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Psychiatrist, Psychoanalyst, Entrepreneur, Writer, Speaker, Advocate

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