By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
It is a situation where the common sense advice is in conflict and the platitudes can go both ways: Don't keep your light under a bushel, but pride goeth before the fall. Practically speaking, do you boast about your abilities, or to you keep it humble? For a witness in court, this might be a very real choice. Physicians, for example, defending themselves in a professional malpractice case may want to say, "I know what I'm doing...and I'm a good person." But should they? According to a recent study looking at the effectiveness of "self-enhancement statements," or bragging, the answer seems to be "Yes" on the first part, but "No" on the second.
The study (Heck & Kruger, 2016) looks at the effectiveness of bragging in a couple of contexts. Specifically, the Brown University researchers test the "humility paradox" in which those who boast are believed to be viewed as more competent but less moral. In an online experiment using 400 volunteers, the researchers assessed the credibility of targets who claimed to be above average or below average on either competence or morality. They also factored in additional external evidence indicating that the person either was or was not actually competent or moral. The result, as summarized in a release to ScienceDaily is that "when competence is the issue, it pays to advertise," and those who were competent and claimed to be so, were viewed more credibly than those who were equally competent, but did not claim to be so. On morality, however, those who claimed to be worse than average were viewed as more moral than those who didn't. These results point toward a useful rule of thumb for witnesses and other public presenters: Don't be shy regarding your competence, but when it comes to the less tangible quality of your morality or character, let your audience reach their own conclusions. In this post, I will discuss some implications for witnesses, attorneys and anyone else facing the choice between asserting expertise and maintaining humility.