Why People Humblebrag

December 13th 2015

Laura Donovan

If you spend any time on social media then you know that it fosters a lot of bragging, and with yet another engagement season upon on us this holiday season, you can safely anticipate more bragging than usual this time of year. You can also expect some humblebragging.

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What is humblebragging?

The phrase, which was coined by the late "Parks and Recreation" executive producer Harris Wittels, is defined on Urban Dictionary as trying to "get away with bragging about yourself by couching it in a phony show of humility." Humblebragging became popularized on television and in articles. Wittels, who died at the beginning of 2015, created a popular Humblebrag Twitter account and even wrote a 2012 book called, "Humblebrag: The Art of False Modesty."

Here are some tongue-in-cheek examples of humblebragging that Wittels retweeted on his Humblebrag account two years ago:

How humblebragging backfires

With his tireless comedic instincts, Wittels called out the false modesty in humblebragging to be funny, but those who humblebrag in their everyday lives may not realize that it isn't always a laughing matter.

Michael Norton, a professor at Harvard Business School and co-author of the paper "Humblebragging: A Distinct–and Ineffective–Self-Presentation Strategy," told the Atlantic earlier this year that there are social repercussions to humblebragging. Those who humblebrag want to seem relatable and accomplished, and when it's clear to others that you're trying to straddle both of these things, people may be put off and question your sincerity.


Norton explained how this could get confusing:

“Two fundamental goals in life are to get people to be impressed by us and feel sympathy for us. People think they can get the best of both worlds by being indirect. Instead they are perceived as insincere."

Why do we humblebrag?

The researchers behind "Humblebragging: A Distinct–and Ineffective–Self-Presentation Strategy" conducted a series of studies to look at humblebrags, complaints, and normal bragging on social media platforms as well as job interview situations to observe how others responded to each remark. The academics found humblebragging to be an "ineffective self-promotional strategy" and that people preferred direct bragging or complaints to cloaked modesty.

"[H]umblebragging is less effective than simply complaining, because complainers are at least seen as sincere," the paper reads. "Despite people’s belief that combining bragging and complaining confers the benefits of both self-promotion strategies, humblebragging fails to pay off."


Francesca Gino, who co-authored the paper with Norton, told Forbes over the summer that people gave less money to humblebraggers than braggers in an exercise for one of the studies.

“Not only do we like humblebraggers less that braggers, but we’re less likely to be generous to them,” Gino said.

In other words, your best bet is to decide whether you're going to brag or complain about something. Marrying the two has social consequences you should be prepared to face if you're inclined to humblebrag.

"It’s natural to want your friends to exhibit the perfect blend of praise and sympathy at all times, constantly showing breathless admiration for your genius while intuiting all the subtle ways that your daily life carries unspeakable and unique burdens," wrote the Atlantic's Derek Thompson earlier this year. "But it’s best to separate out your requests for sympathy and praise. When in doubt, complain constantly, bask in sympathy, and wait patiently for praise."

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