Imagine you just received a great bit of news at work – a promotion, pay rise, new car, an acceptance letter from the top journal in your field. If you are like me, you would probably like to open your door or pick up your phone and share your happiness with co-workers and friends. But research that colleagues and I have recently carried out suggested you should think twice.
Despite your genuine intentions, your friends or colleagues may not be as excited as you think to hear your good news. Most people probably realize that they experience emotions other than pure joy when they are on the receiving end of someone else's self-promotion. Yet, when we engage in self-promotion ourselves – by tagging ourselves at a first-class airline lounge on social media or sharing news of the triathlon we just completed – we tend to overestimate the extent that others will share in our joy and underestimate the negative reactions this can provoke.
Colleagues and I conducted a series of experiments to investigate this phenomenon, which we recently published in the journal Psychological Science. We asked participants to recall situations in which they engaged in self-promotion, or were the recipients of someone else's. Participants recalled boasting or hearing boasts about a variety of topics – from achievements and special abilities to money, status and material possessions, from knowing the right people to having great partners, children and lovers.
We found that self-promoters overestimated the extent to which recipients of their self-promotion felt proud and happy for them and underestimated the extent to which recipients felt annoyed. We were fascinated by these results, and attributed this miscalibration to a phenomenon called the empathy gap. Both parties – self-promoters and recipients – have trouble imagining how they would feel if their roles were reversed.