A New Way of Looking at the Personality of the Bragger
If you think that all braggers are narcissists, new study shows why they're not.
Posted May 11, 2019
Everyone is familiar with, and tired of, people who brag. There is the clear annoyance you feel about the “humble bragger,” whose social media posts might include “complaining” about having to take a business trip to an exotic location because someone wants to meet with them. That post is intended to make humble braggers seem important by showing that they are so much in demand that the company is willing to pay for a weekend in Waikiki. The complaints are there, we may presume, to neutralize the act of bragging. You’d feel much better if these people would just say something like “looking forward to” x, y, or z, instead of putting on the pretense of being so inconvenienced by the trip that they have to broadcast it to the world. The other kind of braggers take a different approach to the art of trying to impress. They will pretend not that they’re unhappy about something great, but that they’re doing something much greater than is actually the case. Part of the pretense of this type of bragger involves claiming to be something they’re not. Why do people do this? Are they driven by the narcissistic need for admiration?
A new study by Humboldt Universität zu Berlin’s Doreen Bensch and colleagues (2019) zeroes in on the overclaiming form of bragging to find out who is the most likely to engage in this particular impression management strategy. The study was motivated by an interest that researchers in personality measurement have in identifying people who try to look better than they are in psychological tests. If participants try to make themselves look good, they will put a positive spin on every question that they believe can show them in a favorable light. One form of self-enhancing fabrication is social desirability, in which test-takers choose not to admit to behaviors that could put them in an unflattering light. They may claim, for example, that “my table manners at home are as good when I eat out in a restaurant,” or that “I never resent being asked to return a favor.” If you answer “true” to a number of these items, the researcher can infer that you are also trying to make yourself look good in the actual tests of interest.
The related behavior of overclaiming takes a different form of response distortion. As defined by Bensch et al.’s summary of research on the topic, “Overclaiming is the tendency to claim knowledge about nonexistent items” (p. 353). In everyday life, people use overclaiming to make it sound like they know about areas in which they have no actual knowledge. Here’s where you can probably dip into your storehouse of bragging scenarios with people trying to impress you. Perhaps you work with someone who feels it’s important to appear knowledgeable about important media phenomena. The series finale of Game of Thrones was fodder for water cooler conversations that lasted for days. Not wanting to appear out of it, he never admits to not having watched it, but instead laughs and agrees with what everyone else is saying. He might even quote from media coverage of the episode. Similarly, you might have a relative who likes showing off her mastery of sports trivia. Her overclaiming takes the form of rattling off supposed statistics regarding her team’s best players, as she feels confident no one will realize she made up those numbers.
A final type of positivity bias involves a simpler process of just saying you are better than you are, in the type of bragging the German authors refer to as overconfidence. You may be playing a video game that is now at a very high level of difficulty. You know that it’s taken you an inordinate amount of time to complete the level. Therefore, when talking to a friend who plays the same game, it surprises you to hear her say how easy it was. There’s very little chance that she was able to whiz through the level unless she was extremely lucky. In her own estimation, she did a great job, but the reality was almost certainly far less gratifying. In actual psychological testing, overconfidence would be measured by seeing how well participants performed on a memory quiz in comparison to how well the participant felt they had done. The comparison between estimation and performance provides a nice way to quantify this type of bragging.
The three components of personality test bragging, then, include social desirability, overclaiming, and overconfidence, which, as noted by the authors, form a “nomological network” reflecting a general positivity bias. The bane of the personality researcher, these qualities should also correlate with traits such as grandiose narcissism and, in some way, with the five personality traits included in the Five-Factor Model (neuroticism, extraversion, agreeableness, openness to experience, and conscientiousness). You might immediately suspect, as did the authors, that the bragger's true personality fits the profile of the grandiose narcissist. To test whether this hypothesis is valid, the German authors administered a set of online questionnaires to German university students whose average age was 25 (58 percent female). Included in these questionnaires was a measure of so-called crystallized intelligence, or knowledge about culture, vocabulary, and other areas of general information.
The overclaiming measure, that assessment of bragging which taps saying you know about something that you don’t, was tested with questionnaires that gave them items from popular culture that have never happened. The three categories included in the overclaiming scale were physical sciences, civics, and humanities. Participants indicated how well they knew each item, from “never heard of it” to “know it very well.” One such example was the item “prosa,” a fake term. If they said they were familiar with this non-existent term, the response added to their overclaiming score. These lures were enough to draw out the overclaimers, which, when added to social desirability and overconfidence, provided the researchers with an overall picture of how much the participant was trying to make a good online impression.
Much to the surprise of the researchers, overclaiming stood out on its own as an index of the positivity bias by failing to relate to personality at all, including grandiose narcissism. As the authors note: “overclaiming has its own nomological network not including relationships with socially desirable responding (SDR) scales, personality, nor intelligence” (p. 360). Overclaiming still may be an index of a person’s need for self-enhancement, though, and in fact may be a more purified form of the process. It’s not just that overclaimers want to look more honest, socially skilled, or more able than they are, but that they feel it’s important to appear to be familiar with a wide range of topics about which they have no knowledge. An overclaimer, in other words, can’t stop from “faking.” Narcissism doesn't even enter into the equation, because such a person simply enjoys being a show-off.
To sum up, don't assume that overclaimers are narcissists or even out for personal gain. Their need to impress doesn't come from anything more than needing to look smart. If you're the occasional overclaimer yourself, think about what's leading you to feel this particular need. Admitting honestly your strengths and your weaknesses might be just the way to feeling fulfilled with who you are.
Bensch, D., Paulhus, D. L., Stankov, L., & Ziegler, M. (2019). Teasing apart overclaiming, overconfidence, and socially desirable responding. Assessment, 26(3), 351–363 doi:10.1177/1073191117700268