No one likes a show-off. But to get ahead in this world, you’re going to need to let at least some people know what you’re capable of. Thankfully Nurit Tal-Or has arrived with a pair of studies that offer some insight into how to brag without coming across as big-headed.
Over a hundred undergrads were presented with the script of a conversation between two people – a ‘show-off’ called Avi who boasted about his A-grade in stats exams, and his friend. Crucially, there were four versions of the conversation, with each undergrad participant reading just one version. In two versions, the friend raised the topic of the exam before he either did or did not ask Avi what grade he got; in the other two versions, Avi first raised the topic of the exam, which either did or did not provoke a question from his friend about his grade. In every version Avi ended up boasting that he got an ‘A+’. Afterwards, the students rated Avi’s character based on the version they’d read.
The crux of it: context is everything when it comes to boasting. If Avi’s friend raised the topic of the exams, Avi received favourable ratings in terms of his boastfulness and likeability, regardless of whether he was actually asked what grade he got. By contrast, if Avi raised the topic of the exams, but failed to provoke a question, then his likeability suffered and he was seen as more of a boaster. In other words, to pull off a successful boast, you need it to be appropriate to the conversation. If your friend, colleague, or date raises the topic, you can go ahead and pull a relevant boast in safety. Alternatively, if you’re forced to turn the conversation onto the required topic then you must succeed in provoking a question from your conversation partner. If there’s no question and you raised the topic then any boast you make will leave you looking like a big-head.
The study author Tal-Or thinks the asking of the question is all-important because of our usually mindless approach to conversations. As a kind of mental short-cut we assume that if a conversant asks a question on a topic then they were probably the ones to have raised that topic in the first place. And once a topic has been raised, a subsequent boast is not seen as such a social sin because it’s in context.
Tal-Or tested this idea with a second study, almost identical to the first, but instead of the participants rating Avi’s character, they were given a memory test on the conversation. As Tal-Or expected, when participants read the story version in which Avi’s friend asked Avi about his grades, they tended to mistakenly remember that the friend had also raised the topic in the first place, even when he hadn’t.
‘In situations ranging from a first date to a job interview, people commonly face the dilemma of how to make their listeners aware of their success without being perceived as braggers,’ Tal-Or said. ‘The present research provides a possible solution to this dilemma.’
Before you takes these tips onto the streets, there’s one major caveat worth noting. Tal-Or only looked at the perception of the boaster in the eyes of onlookers, not in the eyes of one’s actual conversation partner.
Tal-Or, N. (2010). Bragging in the right context: Impressions formed of self-promoters who create a context for their boasts. Social Influence, 5 (1), 23-39 DOI: 10.1080/15534510903160480
If you enjoyed this, you’ll probably enjoy our earlier report ‘How to name drop‘.