You're going to like this column a lot. It's the best one you'll read today, or any day this month. I showed an early draft to a close friend of mine, a famous French novelist I have dinner with whenever I'm in Paris, and he said, “I only wish I could write so well!” Another friend, a billionaire who has two Nobel prizes and an Olympic gold medal (and who recently told me I'm the best-dressed person he knows), responded with just one word: “Wow.”
Why do people brag? They want to make a good impression, whether the context is employment, business, friendship or romance. And sometimes self-promotion does work. When it carries over into bragging, though, it makes the person seem anxious, annoying and unbearably self-involved.
New research by social scientists Irene Scopelliti, George Loewenstein and Joachim Vosgerau offers a powerful explanation for why people undermine their own goals, and create a seriously negative impression, by bragging. In a nutshell, braggarts project their own emotions onto the person they're talking to.
The researchers tested this hypothesis by asking about 50 people to describe a situation in which they had bragged. They asked these “self-promoters” to say whether they felt positive or negative emotions while they were bragging, and also to say whether they thought those who heard them felt positive or negative emotions. At the same time, the researchers asked about 50 other people to describe a situation in which someone had bragged to them. They asked these “recipients” to say whether they felt good or bad while they listened.
The self-promoters greatly underestimated the recipients' negative feelings. They figured that slightly more than a quarter of people reacted negatively to their bragging when, in fact, almost three-quarters of recipients said they did so. These differences mirror another finding -- that most self-promoters felt positive emotions while they were bragging. Only a small minority of recipients of bragging said they felt good during the experience.
There was also a major difference between what self-promoters remembered bragging about and what recipients remembered hearing. Asked to recall the subject matter of their own bragging, people tend to say “achievements.” But when people are asked to recall what other people have bragged about, they tend to say something in the category of “money, possessions, power and status."
Ms. Scopelliti and her co-authors followed this experiment with two others involving more people, and found essentially the same results: Self-promoters greatly overestimate the positive effect their bragging has on how people evaluate them. In one experiment, people were invited to say things about themselves in order to increase the likelihood that others would want to meet them. Their efforts failed (in the process making others like them less).
What's puzzling is that this isn't already obvious enough to everyone, and that it doesn't keep us from bragging. After all, almost all of us occasionally brag, and occasionally listen to bragging. How can we possibly mistake the bad effects?
The researchers' answer: We wrongly project our own positive feelings -- our pride and enthusiasm about what we are saying -- onto our listeners. We're like small children bragging to their parents, people who do share in the excitement over their achievements.
That's undoubtedly a large part of the picture, though much more might be said. When listening to bragging, it's often possible to detect the braggart's anxiety and defensiveness, which make the person seem smaller. If, on the other hand, what the braggart is saying is truly impressive, it might make you feel smaller -- and people tend not to like those who make them feel small.
Social context can make a big difference. Politicians seem to have a kind of license to brag. When close friends brag, it can be a sign of intimacy, and not off-putting at all, because friends often internalize one another's emotions. (Close friends sometimes invite each other to brag.) When an employee brags to his boss, it might be a bit better than when a boss brags to his employees. We don't know whether men and women react differently to bragging, or if men are more, or less, irritated by female bragging than women are by male bragging.
One thing, though, should be clear: This column has been spectacular.
To contact the writer of this article: Cass R. Sunstein at [email protected].