Few situations are as anxiety-provoking as job interviews or first dates. Without appearing desperate, you’re trying to convince a stranger that you’re more worthy of their time, money, attention, and affection than a slew of strangers who you’ve probably never met. It’s awkward, and you’re probably wearing uncomfortable clothes.
Many of us respond to this pressure, which psychologists call “impression management,” by highlighting our successes and talents. This self-selling can be exceedingly obnoxious: “I’m a natural-born leader,” a date once proclaimed, before reminding me for the third time that he worked at Goldman Sachs.
But more often than not, sharing our talents is a well-intentioned instinct. From childhood on, we’re praised for earning high marks, winning games, and earning promotions. It’s no surprise our self-confidence (or lack thereof) is intimately tied with quantifiable success, and the romantic delusion of “innate” talent.
However, a new study from the City University of London’s Cass Business School, published in the journal Basic and Applied Psychology, suggests we’re approaching impression management all wrong, especially on interviews and dates. Instead of emphasizing success, we’d be better off focusing on effort, the seemingly less-flattering flip side of talent.
“A success story is hardly complete or convincing without an explanation for the success,” writes Cass professor Janina Steinmetz, author of the study. “Did the success come easy, thanks to one’s talents, or was it effortfully attained through hard work? Both of these attributions can be part of successful self-promotion, but which attribution is more likely to garner favorable impressions?”
To answer this question, Steinmetz conducted three experiments, two of which emulated job interviews, and one of which emulated a date. Participants were asked to imagine either the role of the impression manager (the interviewee, or the “sharer,” on a date), or the receiver (the interviewer, or the “listener” on a date). The impression manager tries to figure out what will make them appear in a positive light, Steinmetz explains, and the receiver reports what the impression manager would have to say so to make a positive impression.
All three experiments rendered the same conclusion: Impression managers overemphasized their talents and successes, while sharing their efforts far less than the receivers would’ve liked.
“In impression management situations, people usually try to come across as competent because that’s what usual gives them social capital and esteem,” Steinmetz tells Quartz. “Talking about success makes people feel competent, that’s why people do it. But it’s misguided if people only talk about competence and not also about effort.”
Effort, as Steinmetz defines it, means talking about struggles and hard work—the less-glamorous stuff that makes us human.
“When I asked you how you have accomplished so much in your career, you can say, ‘I’m talented,’ or you can say, ‘I struggled and worked really hard.’ The latter is a sign of effort, which is liked by others,” she says. “Effort conveys warmth, likability, and is relatable. Talent conveys competence and ability.”
The key, says Steinmetz, is to do both: People are overly concerned about appearing smart, so they talk about whatever makes them seem smart. However, they forget how much others care about warmth and likability. One is not more, or less, important than the other, but while over-communicating talent sounds arrogant, too much humility is rarely, if ever, a bad thing.