Most of you are probably not aware that lately many seniors in high school have learnt whether they have been accepted to their top-choice college. Or maybe you are. Maybe, even if you have no interest in this news, you’ve heard it reverberating on social media and across phone lines. Some call it celebrating. Others call it bragging.
As a newcomer to all of this, I was fascinated by the self-imposed rules that people have about how and when it’s proper to boast about such an achievement.
Watching people parse the sharing of good news made me think about the bigger issue of bragging. As I researched it further, it became clear that this is something most of us are conflicted about: We want to let people know about our successes, but we don’t want to appear to be doing so. And we want to hear about others’ victories, but not too often or too loudly.
Such trends are hard to measure. What is clear is that technology has provided “more outlets and a lot more reinforcement”, says Susan Krauss Whitbourne, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, US.
There are many reasons people feel the need to publicize their successes, ranging from sharing the joy to one-upmanship. But what research shows is that talking about ourselves just feels good.
Last year, two Harvard neuroscientists published a paper, Disclosing Information About the Self Is Intrinsically Rewarding, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. They conducted brain-imaging and behavioural experiments and found that when people talked about themselves, there was heightened activity in the same brain regions associated with rewards from food, money or sex.
Diana I. Tamir, co-author of the study and a doctoral student at Harvard, says the research focused not on bragging, but on answering neutral questions about one’s personality.
“When asked questions about themselves, there was more reward activity than when asked about someone else,” Tamir says. And there was even more activity when the participants could choose to share information, by pressing a button, with someone outside the scanner. “I think there is a natural human tendency to talk about oneself,” Tamir says. “The interesting question is why we are motivated to share.”
Although boasting may seem more acceptable now, Susan A. Speer, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Manchester in England, has found that “self-praise” is still considered largely unacceptable. Speer, a conversation analyst, looked at a variety of data, from psychiatric interventions to everyday conversations, that involved self-praise. The information came from the US and Britain.
In her study, published last year in Social Psychology Quarterly, Speer discovered that in almost every case, indirectly or directly praising oneself seemed to violate social norms. People responded to self-praise negatively, she said, or, more subtly, with a long silence or a roll of the eyes.
She found that the only way to really blow your own horn—or toot your own trumpet, as they say in Britain—without alienating someone was to repeat something positive someone else said about you. It’s easier for a listener to respond to this kind of self-praise, Speer said, by saying, for instance, “How nice someone said that.”
Even being self-deprecating about accomplishments doesn’t work. In fact, it can be even more irritating, and it has come to be known as “humblebragging” or “underbragging”.
So to brag (or celebrate) or not? Whitbourne suggests stopping before you open your mouth or type something and asking: “What are you trying to accomplish? What is your goal? You have to ask yourself, ‘Why am I sharing my information?’”
And while most of us find incessant braggarts annoying and avoid them if possible (hey, that’s what the “hide” option on Facebook is for), Whitbourne says it is also worth noting if you are constantly irritated by people’s successes. Why does it matter to you, and what can you learn about yourself?
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that questions of how to present ourselves in the best light are so complicated. As Speer noted, researchers have found that it involves a delicate balance of “self-enhancement, accuracy and humility”.
©2013/The New York Times