May 15, 2017
I study how and why people talk about products. In more academic terms, I apply a linguistic and social psychology lens on the study of interpersonal persuasion in contexts such as word of mouth and online social media.
My paper, "When Boastful Word of Mouth Helps Versus Hurts Social Perceptions and Persuasion" (download working paper) asks whether people are more or less persuaded by a boastful source of word-of-mouth information. Prior research shows that people tend to perceive boastful or immodest others negatively. But when people boast, they may also be communicating important information that indicates their skill, knowledge, or authority to provide useful information.
We found that boasting can indeed help in interpersonal persuasion. It all depends on how trusting the recipient is feeling. If they’re feeling distrustful generally or have some other signal that the speaker might be less trustworthy, adding boasting to the mix creates a strong rejection reaction. However, if they’re feeling trustful, boasting by an information source can have a strong positive effect. Boasting in this case makes the source even more persuasive than modesty. You could kind of say that immodesty isn’t necessarily a vice when you’re giving advice!
The result is very sensitive to situated factors. When participants had read a newspaper article about a musical play that had a fictional character who was either dishonest or honest, it dramatically impacted their later response to a boastful source of product information.
The other thing I found surprising was how boasting can be seen positively by some people. Take U.S. President Donald Trump. Most people can’t fathom how his tendency to brag and boast doesn’t turn his supporters off. Yet if his supporters have a pre-existing reason to feel trusting towards him (e.g. maybe years of watching him on The Apprentice or mistrust of the mainstream media), Trump’s boastful manner would only make him more persuasive.
We hope this research informs both consumers and marketers. We think it’s especially important that consumers more carefully process the claims of experience or expertise made by boastful sources of information to avoid being overly influenced by them. This is especially true online given the Internet has its share of self-aggrandizing going on in product reviews and social media.
This research has also affected my own behaviour. I’m sensitive to boasting or other forms of self-enhancement in my own speech. I sometimes worry that I’ve said something that might make me come across as pompous or too self-interested. This research makes me all the more careful about trying to present a balanced perspective about myself and what I know. Maybe that old axiom about claiming expertise should be presented like a boast: “Believe me, I know that I don’t know everything!”
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