It doesn't take much time spent in the working world for most of us to realize two contradictory truths. Self-confidence - even misplaced self-confidence - often helps people get ahead. Yet, at the same time, no one really likes an aggressive self-promoter. How do we reconcile these two phenomena?
Or, in other words, how do you figure out when it pays to brag a little, and when tooting your own horn will just alienate people?
New research out of Brown University aims to help (hat tip to Business Insider for the pointer). Using Amazon Mechanical Turks, the research team tested out a variety of fictional bragging scenarios, such as touting your skills and being proven right, being modest and then excelling, or overselling your actual performance, etc. By running through all the variables, they came up with a pair of straightforward questions you can use to determine when you should go ahead and crow a little.
Will the facts back you up?
Unsurprisingly, the group everyone hated the most was delusional self-promoters, those who oversold their skills. "In all cases, claiming to be better than average when the evidence shows otherwise is the worst strategic move you can make," Patrick Heck, the study's lead author, told News at Brown.
Therefore, your first consideration when deciding whether to brag is to consider whether counter-evidence to your claims could ever come to light. If there's even the shadow of a possibility it might, stay humble.
Are you aiming for likability or confidence?
But say you really do have reason to brag. Should you? When it comes to convincing people of your skills, bragging does work, the researchers found. Those who announced a high test score, for instance, were judged more competent than those with equally good results who had kept quiet about their performance.
From these findings, you'd think that, if you really do have the goods, then advertising them is always a good idea. But things are more complicated than that, the researchers discovered. While people thought (accurate) self-promoters were more highly skilled, they also found them less moral and less likable. When you brag, what you gain in competence, you lose in trustworthiness. So you have to make a choice.
"If you are more concerned with your perceived morality - your likability, trustworthiness and ethics - the answer is simple: avoid self-enhancing claims, even if the evidence supports them. Here, humility is the best option," advises Heck.
A rather large footnote
Before you go putting this science into practice, there's one rather huge caveat to keep in mind, however: all the test subjects were men. A heap of evidence shows women are assessed differently when it comes to confidence, likability and self-promotion, so the researchers only recruited male study subjects, as they put it, "to control for potentially confounding effects of gender."
That means that while they've uncovered a useful framework for men who are trying to figure out exactly how loud to sing their own praises, it's important to emphasize that the calculus may be significantly different for women. So if you're in possession of two X chromosomes, for the moment proceed at your own risk. I'll keep you posted when a study that's relevant to you comes along.