Talk it up
Sometimes it pays to brag
No one likes a show-off, particularly in Australia, but when it’s all for a good cause the rules may be a little different, according to new research.
An interest in ethical decision-making led marketing academic Jonathan Berman, an associate professor at the London School of Business, to explore whether chest-thumping is ever warranted by individuals or businesses.
There’s a conundrum when it comes to corporate social responsibility, environmental or philanthropic work, he says. If you don’t talk about it there’s a risk no one will know or take part; but if you do, it can look self-serving and damage your reputation.
And on the personal side, the ubiquity of social media has motivated many of us to give detailed reports on our exploits, especially when they make us look good. The danger is that your latest post or tweet could come across as narcissism.
But there are also many benefits of communicating your good deeds, says Berman, whose research was designed to investigate the trade-offs in bragging and explore why more people aren’t showing off wildly, given the upside.
The short answer to this “braggart’s dilemma”, as he puts it, is that some boasting is fine. But it’s knowing how and when to do it that is crucial to avoiding cynicism from friends and backlash from your market.
“People know that being generous affords you reputational benefits – it’s good to be seen as generous,” he says. “But if someone talks about their good deeds, brags about it or wears certain products to signal that they are doing something good, observers may in turn come to the conclusion that they didn’t do it because they wanted to help but to improve their reputation, and that rubs people up the wrong way. Bragging in general rubs people the wrong way. And it’s very hard to assess what someone’s true intentions are.”
Getting the bragging equation right has some important implications for our behaviour. It can help foster what ethicist Peter Singer calls the culture of giving, because watching others donate to a charity can go viral and prompt more of us to do the same or even see it as an obligation. Although donations to charity have traditionally been anonymous in the past, that may be missing an opportunity to spread the word.
These days consumers face a lot of tension when it comes to being ethical in the marketplace and it often comes at a cost, such as higher prices or lower quality for green or sustainably produced goods. We’re all better informed than a decade ago, and that has an impact on the messages from business. There’s a fine line, for example, between the right amount of information on environmentally friendly products and “greenwashing”.
Consumers do seek out products that are ethical and are looking for information about them, but if there’s a whiff of insincerity, that will rebound, Berman says.
While we may not be more cynical, our daily diet of social media from individuals and
Consumers do seek out products that are ethical and are looking for information about them, but if there’s a whiff of insincerity, that will rebound.
companies means the stakes are much higher now as we are all bombarded with messaging. It’s hard to come up with good targeted messages when the sheer quantity of information is so dense.
Research on social media has also found that people are fundamentally self-centred, Berman says, and we want to improve how others see us. And it’s hard to target messages to a broad social media audience, so we default to posting pictures of our latest holiday.
But there’s good news for those who believe chest-thumping and a slick sales pitch can confer an unfair advantage in the workplace. Plenty of studies show that interviews are a poor predictor of job success, Berman says, and good spruikers may show they are socially capable but not much else beyond that.
Research also shows that narcissists may be very well liked initially, but the varnish wears off. The first time you hear someone brag you may think “this is good”, says Berman, but then when you hear it over and over again it’s not providing new information and it’s just annoying.