In early 2016, Princeton University professor Johannes Haushofer posted a “CV of failures” on his professional website. In the document, he posted a long list of positions, grants, and awards that he had applied for and been rejected from. When asked about the decision to publicize his failures, Haushofer explained in The Washington Post, “Most of what I try fails, but these failures are often invisible, while the successes are visible. I have noticed that this sometimes gives others the impression that most things work out for me. As a result, they are more likely to attribute their own failures to themselves, rather than the fact that the world is stochastic, applications are crapshoots, and selection committees and referees have bad days.”
Haushofer was right: Though our own failures burn in our minds, leading to anxiety and self-doubt, the failures of others are often unobservable. And with social media like Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn, the shiny, enviable achievements of others—the jobs they’ve gotten, the babies they’ve had, the money they’ve earned, the friends they’ve garnered, the glamorous selfies they’ve posted—are more visible than ever before.
The tendency for people to self-promote is not new. Psychologists have known for years that people tend to promote their achievements while hiding failures and negative feelings from others. But the megaphone with which people self-promote today—both online and in casual conversations—is growing louder, in part because there are more opportunities to trumpet accomplishments. Many people attempt to convey dazzlingly unrealistic, aspirational personas devoid of flaw or blemish.
Though our own failures burn in our minds, leading to anxiety and self-doubt, the failures of others are often unobservable.
Inevitably, hearing or reading about the achievements of others through their displays of pride—which can include overt bragging or simply telling a story about something great that happened to them—leads to social comparison. Research by Jens Lange and Jan Crusius suggests an important relationship between displays of pride and the envy felt by onlookers, especially by onlookers with similar or lower rank. When individuals publicize their accomplishments by attributing their success to internal, uncontrollable causes such as their talent, they are likely to convey what we call hubristic pride. This sparks malicious envy in the eyes of others. Malicious envy leads the observers of that hubristic display to justify their own unethical behavior, use more deception in negotiations with the hubristic person, and undermine others’ status. The observer is more likely to wish that hubristic person hadn’t been so successful and may be more likely to hope they’ll fail in the future.
On the other hand, people like Haushofer model a different kind of sharing. When individuals attribute success to controllable causes, such as hard work or effort, they are more likely to convey authentic pride. Unlike hubristic pride, authentic pride inspires benign envy in others. Benign envy motivates onlookers to pull themselves up rather than pull others down. If people only saw Haushofer’s CV of successes, research suggests they would feel malicious envy and would be likely to undermine him—by, for example, gossiping negatively about him or allocating fewer resources to him—whereas reading his CV of failures is likely to inspire awe, earn respect, and make aspiring young economists feel like they can overcome challenges, as well.
When individuals publicize their accomplishments by attributing their success to internal, uncontrollable causes such as their talent, they are likely to convey hubristic pride. This sparks malicious envy.
Though it may seem counterintuitive, my research with Karen Haung, Ryan Buell, Brian Hall, and Laura Huang at the Harvard Business School has found that revealing your failures along with your successes, like Haushofer did, can reduce corrosive malicious envy and promote benign envy, triggering inspirational and productive feelings in others. (This research is currently under review at a peer-reviewed journal).
To investigate the link between personal success, failure disclosure, and envy, we conducted a series of studies. First, we turned to a setting in which stakes are high and envy is pervasive: entrepreneurial pitch competitions. We found that entrepreneurs who spoke only of their prior successes are more likely to be perceived as hubristically proud, invoking in their peers feelings of malicious envy. In contrast, entrepreneurs who not only spoke of their accomplishments but also revealed failures were rated as authentically proud. When the entrepreneurs rated their competitors as authentically proud, they also reported greater feelings of benign envy, showing a desire to achieve the same level of high achievement.
Next, we captured this effect in two experiments with undergraduates. After reading about high-achieving peers thriving in their early careers, undergraduate students at Harvard University indicated their level of envy. Peers who revealed their successes and failures—compared to those who revealed only their successes—triggered less malicious envy in the eyes of the students. This was true regardless of whether the achiever was ambiguously or unambiguously successful (i.e., the top performer in the 99th percentile or a strong performer in the 87th percentile).
Revealing your failures along with your successes can reduce corrosive malicious envy and promote benign envy, triggering inspirational and productive feelings in others.
It’s important to note that revealing failures is different from complaining. Research by Ovul Sezer, Mike Norton, and Francesca Gino suggests that people often combine a brag (“I get asked to sign many autographs”) with a complaint (“My hand hurts”) into a single humblebrag (“My hand hurts from signing so many autographs”). Humblebrags provide a thin veil of inauthentic humility. This harms likability and decreases perceptions of the humblebraggart’s competence.
Though most of the individuals in our studies instinctively sought to hide their failures from the world, our findings suggest that this approach can be misguided. Although instinct tells us that the lowest points in our lives should be locked away from the judging eyes and ears of others, our failures may be just the ticket to future success. So the next time you are presented with the seemingly thorny question, “What’s your greatest failure or weakness?” remember the potential benefits you reap by providing an earnest answer.
This article was updated.