Unmasking humble-bragging

Jonathan Mills
3 min readJan 22, 2023

“Humility does not mean you think less of yourself. It means you think of yourself less” (Kenneth H Blanchard)

In the famous tale of Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, the spoilt and over-indulged Veruca Salt, the child of affluent parents, stands in stark contrast to the story’s protagonist, believing she is without fault and entitled to anything she wants. This lack of humility comes at a price when she is whisked away down a garbage chute that judges her to be a “bad egg.”.

Self-presentation is a fundamental aspect of social life, with a myriad of critical outcomes dependent on others’ impressions. False modesty, however, doesn’t fool anyone. According to a relatively new study from researchers at Harvard and the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, humble-bragging — defined as “bragging masked by a complaint or humility” — actually makes people like you less than straight-up self-promotion.

Research lead, Ovul Sezer, an assistant professor of organisational behaviour at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, notes: “It’s such a common phenomenon. All of us know some people in our lives, whether in social media or in the workplace, who do this annoying thing. You think, as the humble-bragger, that it’s the best of both worlds, but what we show is that sincerity is actually the key ingredient.”

Sezer and her team conducted a series of experiments to determine how common humble-bragging is and how others perceive it. They found that humble-bragging is everywhere: Out of 646 people surveyed, 70% could recall a humble-brag they’d heard recently.

Next, they established that there are two distinct types of humble-brags. The first falls back on a complaint (“I hate that I look so young; even a 19-year-old hit on me!”) while the second relies on humility (“Why do I always get asked to work on the most important assignment?”). About 60% of the humble-brags people remembered fell into the complaint category.

The researchers then carried out experiments to see how people responded to humble-brags, with a particular focus on the bragger’s perceived likability and competence. They found that regular bragging was better on both counts, because it at least comes off as genuine. As Sezer says: “Even complainers were more likable and seemed more competent than humble-braggers of any type.”

Humility has nothing to do with meekness or weakness. And neither does it mean being self-effacing or submissive. Humility is an attitude of spiritual modesty that comes from understanding our place in the larger order of things. It entails not taking our desires, successes, or failings too seriously. Anna Katharina Schaffner, in Positive Psychology, notes: “In the past decade in particular, psychologists have rediscovered the importance of humility. They have established fascinating links between humility and our ability to learn and be effective leaders, and our readiness to engage in prosocial behaviour. Adopting a humbler mindset increases our overall psychological wellbeing and ensures our social functioning. Humility is a perfect antidote to the self-fixated spirit of our age.”

Worthington, Jr., E., Davis, D., & Hook, J. (Eds.) (2017). Handbook of humility: Theory, research, and applications, understand humility as made up of three parts:

  • Accurate self-perception
  • Modest self-portrayal
  • Other-oriented relational stance

They further note that the recent growth in humility-focused studies coincides with the rise of positive psychology and frustration with the limitations of purely individualistic virtues. Alongside compassion, forgiveness, altruism, gratitude, and empathy, humility belongs to “a cluster of virtues that bind society together”.

Humble-bragging destroys your personal brand and reduces your social likability. Sincerity, on the other hand, builds trustworthiness and stature. As Sezer concludes in her findings: “If you want to announce something, go with the brag and at least own your self-promotion and reap the rewards of being sincere, rather than losing in all dimensions.”

Originally published at https://www.stretchforgrowth.com on January 22, 2023.

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Jonathan Mills

Jonathan has spent over 30 years focusing his efforts on developing people throughout the world. He believes that people have the most impact when stretched.