If you’re generous and you brag about it, you earn kudos only if your generosity is news to those around you, according to Wharton marketing professor Deborah Small. She researched the subject for a paper she co-authored titled, “The Braggart’s Dilemma: On the Social Rewards and Penalties of Advertising Prosocial Behavior,” which was recently published by the American Marketing Association’s Journal of Marketing Research.

The researchers conducted seven experiments to investigate how bragging about prosocial behavior affects perceived generosity. They found that bragging conveys information about an individual’s good deeds, making them look generous. But bragging also suggests a selfish motivation that undermines the attribution of generosity, they say. Small’s co-authors include Jonathan Z. Berman, professor of marketing at the London Business School; and Wharton doctoral candidates Emma E. Levine and Alixandra Barasch.

Small recently discussed her research with Knowledge at Wharton. An edited transcript of the conversation appears below.

On the subject of Philanthropy:

I study philanthropy — both what causes people to behave generously and how generous acts are perceived by others, especially in light of the fact that oftentimes, when people behave generously, they reap some benefits in return and those benefits come in different forms. If we’ve received tax breaks when we give to charity, we earn reputational benefits for being perceived as a generous person, which is valued in our society. We [also] reap emotional benefits — it feels good to help others. This is kind of a contradiction because altruism and generosity in its purest form is supposed to be selfless and yet, we benefit from it.

Advertising Good Deeds:

In this paper, we look at what happens when people brag about or advertise their good deeds to others. We ask the question of whether and when bragging is effective. The answer is that it depends. On the one hand, bragging signals a selfish motive for behaving generously. It signals that, perhaps, the person behaved generously not because they’re truly a good person who cares, but because they wanted to earn credit for being a generous person. In that sense, bragging shouldn’t help your reputation if others realize that — or if others perceive you as doing it for an ulterior motive.

On the other hand, bragging is just marketing; it’s providing information. If nobody knows that you did a good deed, then you don’t get any credit at all. So, to the extent that bragging provides new information about your generous behavior, it should enhance your reputation as a generous person.

When Bragging Helps, When it Doesn’t:

Through a series of controlled experiments, we’re able to tease apart or disentangle the different sorts of effects that bragging has on a person’s reputation. The key finding is that bragging only pays in situations for which bragging provides new [information]. So if a person’s reputation is not so generous, bragging can help by providing information that the person has behaved generously. But if a person’s reputation is already generous, then bragging doesn’t provide any new information. It only signals that the motive isn’t pure, [and] that the motive is to improve one’s reputation.

We found this pattern in a number of ways. In one study that I like in particular, we described a person who volunteered for a community service organization. Then, in some cases, they subsequently posted on Facebook, telling their social network that they had done this volunteering. One [aspect of] the study was that we [used filters for] whether this individual was an investment banker or a social worker. Now, investment bankers don’t have the [reputation of being the] kindest and the warmest. In fact, they’re perceived to be pretty selfish, whereas social workers are perceived to be generous [and] warm people.

“Somewhat surprisingly, we found that bragging actually paid off for the investment banker — by providing new information.”

Somewhat surprisingly, we found that bragging actually paid off for the investment banker — by providing new information. When the investment banker brags, people learn that in fact, he’s generous after all, whereas the social worker is already thought to be generous. So, bragging doesn’t pay in the case of the social worker.

Bragging Strategies:

Public displays of generosity are ubiquitous. Nearly every new building on a university campus, hospitals and in the arts is emblazoned with the name of some illustrious donor who’s signaling to the world just how generous they are. These forms of boasts are not just the purview of the super rich. In fact, if you look around on social media, you’ll note just how pervasive bragging is. People advertise or brag about their achievements, they brag about their relationships and they brag about their good deeds. Our research sheds some light on whether this is actually strategically smart and in what cases it’s strategically smart to brag.

What we find is that it makes sense to brag in the cases for which bragging provides new news about a person’s character. If a person’s reputation is already thought to be generous, then bragging fails to provide any benefit and only signals a potentially selfish motive.

“If a person’s reputation is already thought to be generous, then bragging fails to provide any benefit and only signals a potentially selfish motive.”

Doing Good vs. Looking Good:

This research has other implications as well. A reluctance to brag by some individuals may actually be a hindrance for fundraising. A very generous person may want to keep their donations and other good acts private so that they can signal to themselves that their motives are pure. However, we know that one of the best ways to fundraise is by telling other people of your own donations. When you tell a friend about your donations, that inspires them to donate, as well. So, this gets at the conflict between doing the most good possible and appearing the most good.

The Sincerity Factor:

Beyond studying how selfish motives are perceived by others, I also investigate how selfish incentives influence altruistic behavior. In a recent study, we asked people to make a pitch on video, advocating for a cause that they care about. After they agreed to do this, we gave some of them a financial incentive. We told them that for every $10 donated based on somebody watching their video, we would also send them $10 in return. Other participants received no such incentive. What we found was really informative.

We found that donors gave less money on average when they viewed a video made by somebody who had received a financial incentive. This is because even though they were unaware that the incentive existed, they [could] detect the [level of] sincerity. The self-interest of an incentive taints the person’s ability to convey sincerity in their pitch.