Posts tagged with "Humble-bragging"

Harvard study: Backhanded compliments discredit both the scapegoat and the showboat

January 24, 2019

“You are very agile, for a senior citizen.”

“She looks good, even with the baby weight.”

Backhanded compliments: They are the sneaky little social grenades that are lobbed into conversation under the guise of flattery— but detonate with a thud. Unlike true compliments, the backhanded variety might be presented in a positive tone, but have decidedly negative implications.

Given how frequently we hear them, we might assume that such snarky comments offer a positive payoff—at least, to those who confer them.

But think again. A Harvard Business School working paper—written by faculty members Alison Wood Brooks and Michael I. Norton, along with Ph.D. candidate Ovul Sezer—has found that they inevitably create a backlash when the caustic message comes through.

In a series of studies, the researchers found that—while people intend backhanded compliments to increase both their likeability and status—the person who is the source come across as less sincere, less attractive, more condescending, and even less competent than those who offer a traditional compliment.

Not only does a backhanded compliment lessen the giver’s likeability because the insulting undercurrent is not nearly as veiled as the speaker may believe, The Harvard Gazette reports; it also costs the giver status with the target and with everyone who overhears the remark, such as bosses or coworkers.

“You’re aiming for these two things simultaneously, and yet you’re paradoxically hurting both of them when you give them,” said Brooks, an assistant professor of Business Administration and Hellman Faculty Fellow. Brooks is also a self-professed recovering “queen of backhanded compliments” who studies the psychology of conversation, with a particular interest in how people give and receive advice and feedback, of which compliments are a common form.

Those who give backhanded compliment think they’re getting a leg up on a perceived rival while burnishing their own reputation. But in reality they’re torpedoing both, and worst of all, often don’t even realize it.

“You’re not thinking enough about how you’re being perceived; you’re thinking about how they’re going to be perceived,” said Norton. “This really feels like a winning strategy for [the people who do it].”

The most offensive type of backhanded compliment involves being favorably compared to a stereotyped grouping or to a negative expectation. The underlying message there is: “You’re not good at things; your group is not good at things, and basically all I see you as is a member of that group and nothing else,” said Norton, adding, “No one wants to be just a blank. And yet, when people say it, they mean it as a compliment.”

Why engage in backhanded compliments if they cause such obvious social harm? One key reason is that people don’t get good feedback about how they come across, analysts say. When faced with an offensive comment or act, it is rare for others to speak up in the moment, leaving the speaker with a false sense that what was said was fine.

“Either they don’t reflect about it and don’t realize at all, or they’re in denial about it. And I think that’s true about most conversational mistakes,” said Brooks. “Conversing is hard; it’s very cognitively depleting. You’re monitoring the other person’s facial expressions and body expressions and emotions and their words while you’re also doing your own. It’s a really difficult thing to do, so we make all kinds of mistakes of commission, like saying things we shouldn’t, and then we don’t say things that we should, like ‘I love your sweater!’”

Even though they generally fail, backhanded compliments do sometimes confer a competitive edge by damaging a target’s confidence and motivation, the paper concludes.

“Everyone will hate you, but if that person stops working, then I won,” said Norton, who recently worked on a study of “humble-bragging,” a strategy with similar dual aims that has exploded on social media, with Sezer and Francesca Gino, the Tandon Family Professor of Business Administration at HBS.

“We’d like to believe that when you receive a piece of negative feedback that you could discount it and dismiss it,” said Brooks. “But what we know from psychology research on negative feedback is that it’s incredibly insidious. … It’s like an intrusive thought. The power of suggestion is so strong.”

Much like the fine line between stupid and clever, there’s not much separating a heartfelt compliment from a backhanded one.

“Compliments are meant to make you feel like you’re one of the best,” said Brooks, but backhanded compliments make it clear the giver has a comparison standard in mind that should never be articulated. “Probably underlying all compliments, the person giving the compliment is thinking of a comparison set, they’re just not making it salient. That’s how the social mind works. The person receiving it doesn’t think about it; the person just feels good. With backhanded compliments, the speaker is making that comparison set perfectly explicit, and it feels terrible: ‘Hey, I’m the best of the worst!’”

 “If you are going to do it, do it in private. Our tendency is to want to do it in public [like at a staff meeting] so everyone knows,” said Norton. “But in fact, we show that they’ll all hate you.”

Research contact: @ProfAWBrooks

Holiday letters and the fine art of the ‘humble-brag’

December 3, 2018

It’s that time of year when we start receiving holiday cards—and the enclosed family letters and photos that we love to hate. Whether they are from far-off friends or close-by relatives, many of these missives will come with at least a few paragraphs of humble-brags—“complaints” about the outstanding achievements of children, spouses, and the writers, themselves.

An example: “We barely saw 17-year-old Laura this year, because she was so busy with her cheerleading practices, dance recitals, and studying for those straight-A grades so she can apply to Yale.”

Whether it’s telling our friends about our work-related accomplishments, sharing that we’ve bought a new [insert vehicle or gadget of choice here], talking about a first-class trip, describing the new wing we’ve added to our home, or boasting about our children’s talents, we’ve all bragged at one time or another.

We feel good when we share our successes or the successes of those we love. In fact, a paper published in 2012 by two Harvard neuroscientists said that talking about ourselves gives us the same kind of pleasure we get from sex or food.

“Self-disclosure is extra rewarding,” said Harvard neuroscientist Diana Tamir, who conducted the experiments with Harvard colleague Jason Mitchell. Their findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “People were even willing to forgo money in order to talk about themselves,” Tamir said

And yet, says a report in Real Simple, who wants to be known as a braggart? Enter the humble-brag. It’s the kind of bragging we see on social media so frequently. It tells the world just how great your life is then downplays it under the guise of humility or self-deprecating humor (Ack! Just spilled red wine on my new book contract! #bumblingthroughlife).

Ironically, that attempt at minimizing big news can actually work against us, irritating others and turning their perceptions of us to decidedly negative. That’s why so many holiday letters hit the trash so quickly.

Indeed, says Real Simple, bragging is a tricky business. In the real world, we can see how people react to a boast. But on social media sites—or when we send those gossipy holiday letters—we have no face-to-face interaction with the recipients: We don’t have the advantage of catching the recipient with a disengaged look, a snicker, or an eye roll—to tell us to adjust our behavior.

To navigate all that, we may (consciously or subconsciously) “try to neutralize the potential image of [ourselves] … as egocentric, narcissistic, or both, by tempering the brag with a self-deprecating comment or disclaimer, hoping that [recipients] won’t detect the brag—or at least won’t be offended by it,” says Susan Krauss Whitbourne, a University of Massachusetts, Amherst, psychology professor, told the magazine. .

“But humble-bragging is disingenuous,” social media expert Karen North, director of the Annenberg Program on Online Communities at the University of Southern California, told Real Simple in an interview. “It’s manufactured modesty as a guise for overt bragging.”

And it’s this dishonesty that bothers people. The opposing nature of a humble-bragging post (I’m so talented! But I’m so modest!) is annoying because it asks readers to go in two directions at once, reaction-wise.

The magazine offers a few pointers to the authors of holiday letters this season:

  • Boast judiciously.Bragging should represent only a small percentage of what you write. That way when something truly great does happen, you won’t feel the need to underplay it.
  • Know your audience.Think about who is reading your missive and how they might react. Did a close friend just lose his job? Then you might not want to crow about the super-fantastic gig you just landed
  • Note which friends’ annual letters you generally like and which you find annoying.Figure out how the two sets differ. Does one person post in positive language, while the other shares things in a way you find grating? Avoid the latter.
  • Enjoy the outrageous humble-brags out there.Let’s face it, e all know (and even love) some people who will never stop humble-bragging. And now that we have a name for phenomenon, maybe we can just sit back and laugh when it happens.

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