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Should We Brag?

My Facebook friend Anna Krupitsky thinks that bragging is a talented person’s Achilles’ heel. Is this true? There are strong social norms against bragging. Even stupid people know that bragging is looked down on. If this is true, most smart people will try hard not to brag. Only the strange smart person who “cannot help it” will overtly brag. Now, observe: People love to punish the braggarts. At the same time, people claim that the people who brag are deluded, incompetent or at least not “as good as they think”. There is a strong consensus that it is empty vessels that make the most sound. But, if this is what they really think, why do people want to punish them? I do not find it plausible that people punish braggarts because of genuine outrage toward someone who overrates himself. This cannot be true because if their outrage were genuine, advertising would not have been a multibillion dollar industry. So, why does advertising work on almost everyone despite such strong social norms against bragging? Why do people despise bragging in abstract while rewarding it in concrete? 

To understand this, consider situations in which people reward certain behavior in concrete while claiming to despise it in abstract. Women, for instance, claim that they prefer men who are polite and respectful. But, they discriminate against men who take “No” for an answer, and claim that such men are not being honest about themselves. Some people at “overcomingbias” and “lesswrong” even claim that it is because women assume that nerds believe that they are entitled to sex. So, women profess to like men who are polite and respectful, while preferring men who make the bold move.

Why would people do this? It might be because they simply prefer such men. But, hypocritical behavior cannot be a virtue. Valuable as those norms are, if men break such norms, and women reward men who break those norms, it must be because breaking such norms makes a lot of sense. It is prudent to build alliances with people who break norms that people do not take seriously. Aggressiveness in the mating game is not a virtue, but it is strategic behavior nonetheless. But, is praising aggressiveness strategic behavior? No. While building alliances, it is more strategic to praise politeness and literalism. So, men will practice aggressiveness and women will reward such behavior, while continuing to praise politeness and literalism.

But, this need not always be the case. People can break social norms simply because these norms themselves do not make any sense. It is not hard to think of situations in which this seems to be the case. For instance, people look down on revenge. But, they cheer on the heroes of the movies that celebrate revenge because deep down, they know it to be a virtue. But, even though people are really vengeful, they rarely set out to take revenge when it is costly to do so.  They are more likely to pursue revenge when this is strategic behavior. If this is true, revenge is a socially beneficial public good that is under-produced. Now, if people know revenge to be a socially beneficial virtue, why do they claim to look down on revenge? While building alliances, it is stupid to claim that you value revenge. It is stupid to reveal your willingness to “get even”.

I think the same principles apply to bragging. There are such strong norms against bragging that the people who brag are likely to be socially clueless, irrespective of their IQ level. If this is true, building an alliance with them is dangerous. But does that mean that listening to a braggart is dangerous too? To know this, we should imagine what people might do if listening to braggarts is valuable while building alliances with them is suicidal. They will listen to braggarts while avoiding them like plague. Does human behavior fit this pattern?

I think it does. Are you supposed to brag in an interview? No. You are expected to be more subtle. Even if you brag, it is not supposed to be “in-the-face”. Why? While hiring you, your employer is building an alliance with you, and not merely listening to the “information” you provide. Does bragging get you friends? No. Friends are building an alliance with you, and not just listening to the information you provide. But, are advertisers expected to brag? Yes. Humble advertising does not sell products. People do not mind bragging in ads because they are merely “listening” to advertisers, and not attempting to build an alliance with them.  If human behavior is strategic, whose behavior is likely to be least corrupted by emotions and prejudices? I think it will be that of the consumers who buy products of nameless, faceless corporations. If this is true, I think people should reward and practice bragging more. Then, why do people claim to despise bragging? To avoid braggarts, people would rather claim that the braggarts are deluded, and not “as good as they think”. And they do this while rewarding braggarts when people are not watching.

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