Scientific Evidence That Self-Promoters Underestimate How Annoying They Are

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27 Oct 2010, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda --- Mountain Gorillas, Gorilla beringei beringei, in the Volcanoes NP, Rwanda, Blackback beating his chest --- Image by ? Joe McDonald/Corbis
Photo: Joe McDonald/Corbis

You know someone who drones on endlessly about themselves and their accomplishments; maybe, probably, you’ve also been that someone at some point. Now some new research provides an insight into the mind of the self-promoter: They have no idea how annoying they are.

In a not-yet-published paper, researchers led by Irene Scopelliti at City University London argue that people who brag about themselves both underestimate how much it bugs people, while overestimating how interested people are in the stories they’re telling.

In one study, they asked 75 adults to remember either a time they bragged, or to remember a time they had to listen to someone else’s bragging; the participants were also asked to rate how much they enjoyed the experience and how much they guessed their conversational partner enjoyed it. The people in the bragging condition thought their listeners were probably happy and not very annoyed to hear of their achievements; not surprisingly for anyone who’s ever been bragged at, the people in the non-bragging condition recalled being less happy and more annoyed than the bragging group estimated.

And, okay, the methodology isn’t perfect here. Maybe the people who remembered a time when they engaged in some shameless self-promotion really did manage to do it in a non-annoying way; conversely, if you’re asked to remember listening to a self-promoter, you’re probably more likely to recall a particularly egregious case. (The authors admit as much in the paper.) Still, if you’ve ever been cornered at a party by some person who won’t stop reeling off their achievements or slipping in mentions of their fancy shoes, car, vacations, the finding certainly feels true to life.

They ran a separate study in which they attempted to address this concern by asking a group of people to create a profile on a fake social-media site; some of these participants were given instructions to write about themselves in a way that would make other people interested in meeting them, while others weren’t given any specific instructions. They then guessed how others would react to what they’d written. How much would people like them? How interested would the readers be in meeting them? How successful would others think they were? And would the readers think they were bragging?

A second set of participants judged the profiles. As it turned out, the profile writers thought the judges would like them more than they actually did —  and the judges especially didn’t like the people who’d been specifically told to write their profile so that people would be interested in meeting them.

These findings mirror that of previous research: People brag because they just want to be liked, but it usually backfires. One study done in the 1980s, for example, found that when people tried to make their conversational partner more interested in them, the opposite happened. Their partners liked them less, and they also rated the self-promoters as less competent than people who’d been paired with a partner who didn’t try so hard to win their approval.

And so the authors conclude, “In general, favorable impressions may be better accomplished by means of self-presentational modesty, or even self-denigration, than by outright bragging about one’s positive qualities.” In other words: Just shut up about yourself. Or, if you’ve got to say something about yourself, at least make it self-deprecating.

But are there better ways to let people know about your accomplishments without alienating everyone listening? George Loewenstein, a co-author of the paper and a psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon University, suggested this in an email:

Well, there is the ‘wing-man’ solution – finding someone else to sing your praises. Other than that the best strategy, when you feel the urge to brag, is to keep your lips zipped. People will be much more impressed if they hear about your triumphs from other sources, and they will be doubly impressed that you didn’t bring it up yourself.

That’s one thought. Another is this: It’s just really boring to be on the listening end of bragging. Peggy Klaus, author of Brag! The Art of Tooting Your Own Horn Without Blowing It, told Science of Us that she has two tips for anyone who’d like to tell their friends about their achievements without annoying them to death: Keep it short, and make it interesting. Weave the braggy detail into an entertaining story, she advises. And if you can’t do that, you’re probably better off just shutting up about yourself.

Self-Promoters Don’t Know How Annoying They Are