From millionaire philanthropists who place their names on hospital wings to your co-worker who posts on Facebook about their recent blood donation, we are bombarded with others telling us they are generous and good people.
In research that I conducted with Alixandra Barasch, Emma Levine, and Deborah Small at the Wharton School, we set out to discover whether bragging about good deeds means you’ll be seen as a generous person or insincere and more concerned with letting people know that you do good deeds than caring about helping others.
Interestingly we found the answer depends upon what we know about someone who brags. This is because when someone tells you they have done a charitable act it does two things. The first is communicate information.
However, the second thing bragging does is undermine the braggart’s motives. When your co-worker tells you about their volunteering you may become suspicious about their reasons for helping others. Are they telling you about this because they really care about helping those in need? Or did they help others so they can brag about it to their colleagues?
When someone brags they send a positive information signal – that they did a good deed – and a negative reputation signal – that they may not have had pure motives for helping others. The question is, which one of these signals will ultimately win?
In our research we predicted that the less we know about someone the more likely it is that their brags will cause us to view them favourably. This is because information is powerful. Even if you are suspicious of your co-worker’s motives for volunteering at the soup kitchen it's hard to deny that she did a good deed when she could have sat at home.
Conversely, the more we know about someone’s good deeds the less likely bragging is to communicate generosity, and the more likely it is make us to think less of a co-worker. If you already know that your co-worker does good deeds then bragging no longer provides information. Instead it simply signals that your colleague doesn’t have the purest motives at heart.
To test this we presented 200 participants with information about an individual they had never met named Jeff. Half were not given much information about Jeff. However, they were shown one of his Facebook posts in which he either talked about his day or bragged about donating to charity. Those who read Jeff’s brag on Facebook rated him as being more generous than those who read the Facebook post about Jeff’s day did. Since they did not know much about him beforehand the bragging helped.
The other half read the same information about Jeff with one exception. These people learned that Jeff made a charity donation before seeing his Facebook posts. In this case those who read Jeff’s brag on Facebook rated him as being less generous than those who read the Facebook post about Jeff’s day. Knowing beforehand that Jeff donated to charity meant that the brag didn’t tell them anything new. Instead they were suspicious of his motives when he bragged, causing them to think that he was less altruistic and more motivated by moral credit than a genuine desire to help.Does this mean your co-workers should constantly brag about their good deeds? Well, the more we hear the more cynical we become. As information about our colleagues becomes less novel we tend to become more suspicious of their motives. Repetitive bragging, even if it is about new and different good deeds, very quickly arouses co-workers’ suspicions and could damage your reputation in the long run. So it’s a fine line and one to be trodden carefully.
Jonathan Berman is assistant professor of marketing at London Business School