Why bragging about exam expectations is a good thing

We've been taught it's bad to boast, but we get pleasure from it, science shows, so there's no reason for well-prepared students to be self-deprecating about their exam performance.

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 May, 2015, 6:38am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 May, 2015, 8:21pm

The International Baccalaureate and International General Certificate of Secondary Examinations are in progress.

The invigilation duty teachers are required to undertake follows a frenetic period of facilitating the completion and submission of internal assessments, marking mock exams, and preparing students for these external examinations. Devoid of any activity other than watching students write their exams - one colleague aptly describes invigilation as "interesting as watching paint dry".

Over the years I have observed students experience the full range of emotions from euphoria to abject despondency in the exam halls.

I am always intrigued by the self-deprecating responses of really well-prepared students: "I got lucky and all the questions were from the units I had studied." I want to interject, "No, you prepared very well - you could have answered any question from any unit."

While confident responses, "It was an awesome paper", from ill-prepared Arnold, makes me worry that the look of awe this confident bragging got him from his peers could preclude him from revising properly for the next exam.

However, the student who intrigues me the most is the one who doesn't feel the need to discuss and talk about his or her exam performance.

Because we all love to talk about ourselves. Harvard university neuroscientists tell us we are almost compelled to share our thoughts because we find the process as rewarding as food, sex or money.

Through brain imaging and behavioural experiments that neuroscientist Diana Tamir conducted with colleague Jason Mitchell, she found a positive correlation between acts of "self-disclosure" and spurts of heightened activity in the mesolimbic dopamine system. That is the pathway in which dopamine that controls the brain's pleasure and reward centres is carried from one area of the brain to another.

We are taught from an early age that self-disclosure and boasting is not considered a desirable trait. So we learn to camouflage this self-adulation with a touch of humility

Their findings, which were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, revealed when volunteers were offered money if they chose to answer questions about other people, they willingly gave up between 17 per cent and 25 per cent of their potential earnings so they could reveal personal information. Despite the financial incentive, people often preferred to talk about themselves.

However, we are taught from an early age that self-disclosure and boasting is not considered a desirable trait. So we learn to camouflage this self-adulation with a touch of humility.

Late comedian and writer Harris Wittels named this phenomenon as "humblebrag" or the art of self-modesty. Humblebragging gives us the social licence to boast through thinly veiled humility or complaints. Or so we thought.

A recent study, published by the Harvard Business School suggests, "Humblebragging - bragging masked by a complaint - is a distinct and, given the rise of social media, increasingly ubiquitous form of self-promotion."

Although people often choose to humblebrag when motivated to make a good impression, it is an ineffective self-promotional strategy because the real complainers and braggers are at least seen as sincere.

So, students, there is one final lesson to learn as you disclose your exam performance. There is no harm in saying sincerely, "I think my hard work paid off. I believe I did well." And when the results are declared, "I am glad I got an A* in biology, because I worked very hard."

And for those students who don't feel the need to discuss their exams, know I am still intrigued you don't find "self-disclosure" rewarding.

Anjali Hazari teaches IB and IGCSE biology at the French International School