You want to impress but you realise that bold-faced bragging can backfire. So instead you highlight the achievements of those close to you - perhaps your son or daughter's success, or even a colleague's - with the hope of basking in the reflected glory. 'I'm a lecturer at Neverland University,' you say, 'our head of department just won a Nobel Prize.' Bad move. According to Nurit Tal-Or's latest research on the psychology of boasting, this form of indirect self-promotion, known as 'burnishing', carries all the costs of bragging but none of the gains.
Sixty participants aged between 60 and 90 read one of three versions of a fictional scenario in which a 68-year-old called Joseph attended a university reunion. In one version, Joseph tells his former classmates that he's a professor of bio-medicine at a well-respected university. In another, he says he used to have that position. In the final version he says his son holds that post. The participants were asked to rate Joseph's character. The Joseph who bragged about his son was rated as no more sociable than the Joseph who boasted about his own past or present career, but was rated as less capable. The indirect bragging was just as costly as direct bragging, it seems, but carried none of the gains.
A second study found the same pattern of results in a different context and with the benefit of a control condition. In this case 83 students read one of four versions of a conversation between two undergrads. In one version, one student tells the other that last month he came second in a marathon. In another, he says he came second in a marathon when at school. In the indirect boasting condition, he says that his brother came second in a marathon last month. And in the control condition, he says that their (shared) stats tutor came second in a marathon. The boasting student, whether done directly or indirectly, was rated by participants as more manipulative than the control version student. And yet only the student who boasted about himself was rated as more able than the control student.
'When people boast about the success of other people, this need to bask in the reflected glory of the success of others may be perceived as pathetic and unworthy of respect,' Tal-Or said. Another possibility is that 'when people brag about their associates' success, their audience may suspect that they themselves do not have any successes of their own to be proud of.'
Previous research by Tal-Or has shown that bragging is perceived as more socially acceptable when it occurs in the context of a topic raised by someone else. Meanwhile, research published in 2008 showed that name-droppers are perceived as manipulative and incompetent.
Tal-Or, N. (2010). Direct and indirect self-promotion in the eyes of the perceivers. Social Influence, 5 (2), 87-100 DOI: 10.1080/15534510903306489