What Is False Modesty? Where Do These People Come From?

— Researched and written by Dr. Sandip Roy.

False modesty is a type of self-promotion that is disguised as a down-to-earth nature.

False modesty, false humility, and humblebragging are similar but slightly different concepts.

  • False modesty is when someone pretends to be “average” and tries to downplay their credentials by, say, making self-deprecating jokes. For example, a student who gets a perfect score on a test might say, “Oh, I just got lucky.”
  • False humility is almost similar to false modesty, but it is more deliberate. This person tries to make themselves look good by pretending to be humble. For example, a boss might say, “I’m not the one who deserves the credit for this project. It was all my team’s hard work,” to appear good, not actually feeling so.
  • Humblebragging is when someone boasts about themselves in a way that is disguised as modesty. For example, someone might say, “I’m so bad at public speaking, but I have to give a presentation at work tomorrow. Wish me luck!” The term humblebragging first came into existence in 2010, by American comedian Harris Wittels.

Here is a table that summarizes the key differences between these three concepts:

False modestyPretending to be more humble than you really are“Oh, I just got lucky.”
False humilityPretending to be humble to make yourself look good“I’m not the one who deserves the credit for this project. It was all my team’s hard work.”
HumblebraggingBoasting about yourself in a way that is disguised as modesty“I’m so bad at public speaking, but I have to give a presentation at work tomorrow. Wish me luck!”

Still, these three concepts can be fluid and overlapping. For example, someone might engage in false modesty without realizing it, or they might start out by being falsely humble and then transition into humblebragging.

Understanding False Modesty

False modesty is a form of behavior in which a person pretends to be more humble than they really are. They downplay their own accomplishments, talents, or qualities in a way that the downplaying part is too obvious to ignore.

what is false modesty and how to avoid it

This behavior is insincere and affected, and is done intending to draw attention to themselves or elicit reassurance from others.

False modesty is also known as fake modesty or insincere humility.

People who put up false modesty are mostly “fishing for” compliments or praise from others. They may also use false modesty as a way to manipulate or control others, or to gain sympathy or attention.

False modesty can be harmful to both the person showing it and to their relationships with others.

Since it is easily seen through, this disingenuous and manipulative behavior can prevent the person from acknowledging and celebrating their own achievements and successes.

Here is an example of false modesty:

“I’m so bad at public speaking, but I have to give a presentation at work tomorrow. Wish me luck!”

This person is not actually bad at public speaking. They could be simply trying to push down people’s expectations of them, so that when they deliver the speech, the audience compliments their speaking skills profusely.

Be aware of false modesty when others put up a show, and avoid doing it yourself.

People who engage in false modesty are considered inauthentic and insecure. They are viewed as people trying to manipulate or control others or gain sympathy or attention for self-aggrandizement.

Stay honest and upfront about your accomplishments and abilities, without boasting, being falsely modest, or humblebragging.

Narcissist's False Modesty
A narcissist’s false modesty – Sam Vaknin

Psychology of False Modesty: Why Some People Are Falsely Modest

People who engage in false modesty may downplay their accomplishments, attribute their success to luck or others, or seek reassurance from others about their abilities.

There are several psychological factors related to false modesty.

Fear of Rejection

A rather common factor among these people is a fear of rejection or criticism.

People who are falsely modest often worry that if they come across as too confident or successful, others will dislike them, get overly envious, or assess them as arrogant, and ultimately reject them.

So, they may downplay their accomplishments or avoid talking about their successes.

Low Self-Confidence

Another factor that can contribute to false modesty is a lack of self-confidence. By the way, the opposite of self-confidence is diffidence.

Diffident people may genuinely believe that they are not as good as others, even when they have a long list of achievements and medals as evidence to the contrary.

As a result, their default behavior is to downplay their accomplishments or seek reassurance from others about their abilities.

Manipulative Nature

In some cases, false modesty may also be motivated by a desire to manipulate others.

These calculative people engage in false modesty in the hope that it will make others feel sorry for them or more inclined to help them.

Many narcissists also use this ploy to seek praise and reassurance from others, which helps boost their own self-esteem.

Impression Management

Another explanation for false modesty is impression management. Impression management is the process by which individuals try to control the way others perceive them.

You can see false modesty as a strategy for creating a positive impression of oneself. By downplaying their achievements or abilities, the person manages to appear humble and likable, which can lead to increased social status and approval.

Research has shown that false modesty can be an effective impression management tactic, particularly in situations where the individual is trying to establish a new relationship or gain acceptance from a group.

The study by Blickle et al. (2012) found that employees who engaged in both impression management through modesty and high political skill had higher hierarchical positions, 23% higher than those with high modesty and low political skill.

Moreover, their career satisfaction was 0.77 SD higher than those with high modesty and low political skill.

Cognitive Dissonance

One possible explanation for false modesty is cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance is a psychological state that occurs when a person holds two or more conflicting beliefs, attitudes, or values.

In the case of false modesty, the person may have a belief that they are talented or accomplished, but also have a belief that it is wrong to brag or show off. This conflict creates a sense of discomfort or dissonance, which they try to resolve by engaging in false modesty.

For example, someone who is excellent at their job may believe they deserve to be promoted.

Now, perks at work come from a backdrop of self-advertisement and self-promotion. However, these people may believe that it is arrogant to brag about their accomplishments to secure that promotion.

This conflict can lead to cognitive dissonance, which they try to resolve by engaging in false modesty, minimizing their accomplishments, or attributing their success to luck or others.

Negative Outcomes of False Modesty

False modesty can prevent people from reaching their full potential, as they may be afraid to take on new challenges or opportunities for fear of failure.

It can also damage relationships, as others may feel manipulated or resentful of the person’s false modesty.

False modesty can also backfire if the individual is perceived as insincere or manipulative. For example, if someone is constantly downplaying their accomplishments, others may start to wonder if they are insecure or if they are simply trying to fish for compliments.

False Modesty in Different Cultures

False modesty is prevalent in many cultures around the world. It is usually deemed as a way to avoid appearing arrogant or boastful, and being respectful of the person interacting with.

In collectivist cultures like those found in China and Japan, modesty is often considered a high-value virtue, and excessive modesty is common. People are expected to downplay their achievements and show deference to others.

In these cultures, it can be difficult to distinguish between genuine humility and false modesty.

This can sometimes lead to false modesty, where people pretend to be less capable or accomplished than they really are. This can be frustrating for people from individualist cultures, where self-promotion is more accepted.

In contrast, some cultures place a high value on self-promotion and assertiveness. In the United States, for example, people are typically encouraged to market themselves and their accomplishments.

Surprisingly, this overbearing attitude towards self-promotion can also result in false modesty, where people pretend to be less successful or less talented than they actually are to appear more humble or likable.

In some cultures, false modesty is also used as a way to gain sympathy or manipulate others. For example, in some Middle Eastern cultures, people may downplay their wealth or status to avoid jealousy or resentment from others.

False modesty can also be a way to avoid conflict or competition. In some cultures, it is considered rude to brag about your accomplishments, even if you are genuinely proud of them. This is because people in these cultures may value harmony and cooperation more than individual achievement.

In some cases, people may pretend to be less knowledgeable or skilled than they really are to avoid being asked to do more work or take on more responsibility.

Finally, false modesty can be a subconscious behavior. People may not even realize that they are being falsely modest. For example, someone raised in a culture that values modesty may automatically downplay their accomplishments, even if they are in a culture where self-promotion is more accepted.

Overall, while it can be difficult to distinguish between genuine humility and false modesty, one might keep in mind the cultural context and norms to avoid misunderstandings and miscommunications.

False Modesty in Social Media

False modesty is not a new phenomenon, but the rise of social media has given us more canvases on which to paint our faux humility.

One of the dangers of false modesty in social media is that it can seem insincere. People can see through the act and may become annoyed or even dislike the person for it.

A study found that humblebragging, which is defined as bragging masked by a complaint or false modesty, makes people dislike the person doing it (Sezer, Gino, & Norton, 2018).

Another issue with false modesty in social media is that it can lead to missed opportunities. People who downplay their achievements may not receive the recognition or opportunities they deserve. This can be especially true for women, who are often socialized to be modest and downplay their accomplishments.

Understanding the underlying origins and psychology of false modesty can help individuals better navigate social interactions. It is important to strike a balance between being confident and humble. People should be proud of their achievements and skills, but also acknowledge the contributions of others and be open to feedback and learning.

Impact of False Modesty on Relationships

False modesty is a harmful trait that can negatively impact relationships in various ways.


False modesty can have a significant impact on friendships. People who display false modesty may come across as insincere, making it difficult for them to build high levels of trust with their friends.

Moreover, it can make it challenging for people to accept compliments, which can make their friends feel uncomfortable or unappreciated.

On the other hand, people who are honest about their achievements and skills are more likely to build stronger friendships. Their trustworthiness and authenticity can help to build stronger bonds with their friends.

Romantic Relationships

False modesty can damage romantic relationships. People used to showing false modesty may struggle to express their emotions or communicate effectively with their partners. This can lead to misunderstandings and conflict, which can put a strain on the relationship.

In contrast, people who are confident and honest about their abilities and achievements are more likely to be successful in romantic relationships. Because their partners know them truly, there is a built-in trust and respect with their partners, which can help to strengthen the relationship.

Professional Relationships

False modesty can also affect professional relationships. Such people may not be seen as competent or capable of handling new and challenging responsibilities.

Moreover, it can make it difficult for people to network effectively, as they may not feel comfortable promoting themselves.

On the other hand, people who are confident and honest about their abilities can show their competence and build trust with their colleagues and superiors, which can help to advance their careers.

Dealing with False Modesty

False modesty can be a difficult personality trait to deal with, especially when it is not recognized as such.

How to Recognize False Modesty

  • Look for inconsistencies between words and actions. People who engage in false modesty may say that they are not good at something, but their actions may show otherwise. For example, someone who says that they are not a good public speaker may give presentations with confidence and ease.
  • Pay attention to the person’s motivations. People who engage in false modesty may be motivated by a desire for attention, admiration, or sympathy. They may also be trying to avoid conflict or competition.
  • Be aware of the cultural context. False modesty can be more common in some cultures than others. For example, in collectivist cultures, it is often considered polite to downplay one’s accomplishments. However, false modesty can also be used to manipulate others in any culture.

How to Handle False Modesty

  • Be Direct and Honest: If you encounter someone engaging in false modesty, be direct and honest. Let them know you appreciate their humility but also recognize their hard work and accomplishments.
  • Be Supportive and Positive: Be supportive and positive, whether you think someone is being falsely modest or not. Encourage them to share and celebrate their successes, and do the same for yourself.
  • Be Honest and Confident: Avoid engaging in false modesty yourself. Be honest and confident about your own accomplishments and abilities, and celebrate your successes without hesitation.
  • Challenge Negative Thoughts: Remind yourself of your accomplishments and the things you are good at.
  • Be Open to Feedback: Use criticism to learn and grow.
  • Seek Professional Help: If you’re struggling to overcome false modesty, consider seeking professional help to understand its root and develop strategies for overcoming it.

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