Earning a good grade, landing a promotion, or accomplishing a personal goal feels exhilarating, but sharing the news with others can be fraught. You might feel awkward about sharing your good fortune: humans are prone to jealousy, and bragging is just plain annoying.
But intentionally shielding your success to spare someone’s feelings will ultimately backfire, according to University of Texas’s Annabelle R. Roberts (a recent graduate of Chicago Booth’s PhD Program), Booth’s Emma Levine, and Cornell’s Övül Sezer.
They find in a series of experiments that hiding success or intentionally withholding positive information about yourself or your accomplishments can damage relationships more than unabashedly sharing your news. You may act with good intentions when you choose to, say, avoid mentioning your recent promotion to someone who was just laid off. But if you’re found out, the person may feel insulted and deceived, the research suggests. A decision meant to be kind can be received by someone else as paternalistic and manipulative.
In seven experiments involving more than 1,600 people, Roberts, Levine, and Sezer studied what staying mum about achievements might do to relationships. In one experiment, the researchers recruited 150 pairs of people—friends, colleagues, romantic partners, or spouses—and asked one person (the “communicator”) to share or hide a real recent success from the partner (the “target”).
The targets felt more insulted by and less close to the communicators who hid, rather than shared, their successes, the research finds. The targets also became less willing to spend money on a token of their friendship (a friendly e-card) when the communicators hid their success.
Honesty is better for relationships
Study participants who were told that a friend hid rather than shared a job-market success were more likely to feel insulted and to suspect that the person had paternalistic motives for withholding the truth. They were also less likely to trust and collaborate with the friend in the future.
The decision can hurt a relationship even when the other person already knows about the success, and it can also damage trust among work colleagues. In another experiment, the researchers asked 106 fellow academics at a conference to react to a fictional scenario that involved discovering via a website that a close colleague had received a coveted job opportunity, and then running into the friend and asking about any professional updates. Depending on the experimental condition, the friend either shared or hid the news.
Once again, staying mum led to hurt feelings. In a survey, the academic participants reported losing trust in their colleague and having less of a desire to collaborate in the future.
There’s no scenario in which hiding a success is productive, the researchers find, suggesting that acting to spare someone’s feelings may be well-intentioned but ultimately misguided. Such behavior can begin in young adulthood when students hide good grades from classmates, says Levine, and it can continue into adulthood and affect decisions such as whether to share pregnancy news with a friend struggling with infertility.
She advises that even when people are worried that their news may be upsetting to someone else, it’s generally better to share it. “Assuming that other people will feel jealous rather than happy for you,” she notes, “is what can undermine relationships.”
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