We’ve all heard someone use a humblebrag at least once in our lives. An acquaintance might say they’re stressed because they have too many business offers. Or, maybe a friend says it’s annoying how many people ask them out on dates. In either case, an eye roll may be warranted.

The humblebrag is a presentation tactic that many people use on a frequent basis. Its usage is characterized by a “modest or self-deprecating statement” with an intention to draw attention to something of which the speaker is proud. However, it’s also a statement many people find irritating. There is even a whole Twitter account dedicated to it.

Illustrating the psychology behind the humblebrag is one way we can understand our reactions to the tactic. It can also help us improve self-presentation habits to make ourselves more appealing during business or networking situations.

To Brag or Not to Brag?

Research from Harvard Business School suggests that people humblebrag because they see it as a useful, self-presentation strategy. It helps them subtly promote any sort of superlative they may have–smarts, beauty, humor, wealth–while seeming modest. In many ways, people use the tactic to seem approachable and/or desirable.

But desirable isn’t what many recipients see. Another study examined humble bragging among subjects who were asked the notorious job interview question, “What is your biggest weakness?” The results showed that independent raters were more likely to hire candidates who gave genuine, straightforward answers over those who humble bragged during interviews.

Evidence in a third study showed that people dislike humble braggers more than people who complain or are outright braggarts because they seem less genuine and sincere. However, people do think that the humble bragger is good at whichever quality they promote. A different study even suggests that they are less successful than outright braggers because they come off as disingenuous. The analysis of all these studies shows that self-promotion is unsuccessful if people think you’re being insincere.

Why do we dislike humble braggers?

Psychologists believe that one reason we are unimpressed with humble bragging may boil down to evolution. They argue that our ancestors had to determine who would assist in their survival through cooperation. If someone was untrustworthy –hoarding food or cheating — then it would weaken the chances of survival for the group. The theory states that our brains are wired to pick up on traits that signal a lack of honesty or sincerity.

An NCBI study offers support for this theory. It suggests that cultural adaption increased ideas of reciprocity and reputation. As people adapted, they stabilized a vast range of behaviors ranging from spite to cooperation. Differences in behavior among local social groups fostered competition among groups. In turn, culturally evolved cooperative environments resulted in social selections within groups. Sanctions and rewards systems helped set up moral codes which increased the reproductive opportunities of individuals who functioned well in social environments. Ultimately, these ideas helped our ancestors evolve and distinguish between motives like hatred, empathy, and shame. Today, these motives help us understand why we hate behavior that seems so indirect and disingenuous.  

The Best Approach for Self-Promotion

Your best bet is to be self-aware in situations where you need to self-promote. It is best to be genuine and honest. If you’re networking or on a job interview, people need to see the best aspects of yourself.

  • Express genuine gratitude in your statement
    Example: I am grateful to have the opportunity… I am very proud of x accomplishment…
  • Think about your audience
    Example: Consider your audience and how people might react. If a close friend just lost their job, you may want to avoid talking about all the job offers you’ve received. Stay sensitive to the realities of other people.
  • Show, don’t tell, your accomplishments
    Example: Present examples of your work and let others do the bragging.
  • Emphasize Hard Work
    Example: Never say, “That was easy”–you’ll come off as arrogant. Instead, emphasize your journey and efforts which have led your current accomplishments.

Ultimately, people who humblebrag want you to think they’re noteworthy in some way. They may succeed in making you believe they’re competent or successful and you may discover they’re just trying to promote themselves in a relatable manner.  

However, the research indicates a need for us to be self-aware and relate to others more directly. Knowing why and how we react to the trait can help us build more profound, honest relationships in our personal and business lives.