Doctoral Student

Ovul Sezer

Ovul Sezer is a Ph.D. candidate in Organizational Behavior at the Harvard Business School.  Prior to joining the doctoral program, Sezer graduated with honors from Harvard University with an A.B in Applied Mathematics. Her research focuses on the study of self-presentation and examines how people intuitively attempt to manage impressions of others.

Ovul Sezer is a Ph.D. candidate in Organizational Behavior at the Harvard Business School.  Prior to joining the doctoral program, Sezer graduated with honors from Harvard University with an A.B in Applied Mathematics.

In her dissertation, Sezer examines previously undocumented and common self-presentation strategies that aim to elicit both liking and respect. For example:  “humblebragging” is bragging masked by complaint or humility, “backhanded compliments” seem to praise but simultaneously draw implicit unfavorable social comparisons, and “namedropping” is the casual mentioning of important people. Drawing on data from social media to job interviews and from lab and field experiments, Sezer documents the ubiquity of these strategies from real life in several domains and provides the first empirical examination of why people frequently employ these tactics and what their consequences are. In particular, she shows how attempts to elicit liking and respect using such strategies backfire because they seem insincere. Through a close examination of these strategies, she explains the neglected phenomena of misguided self-presentation.

Sezer’s research is published in academic journals including Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Journal of Association of Consumer Research and Current Opinion in Psychology and her dissertation work has been featured in media outlets such as Washington Post, Business Insider, Forbes, The Atlantic and Boston Globe. “Humblebragging: A Distinct and Ineffective Self-presentation Strategy” was featured in Harvard Business School Alumni Bulletin’s Year in Ideas for 2015 and was in the top ten most popular articles of the year on HBS Working Knowledge. During her time in the doctoral program, she won the Derek Bok Center Certification of Excellence and Distinction in Teaching six times consecutively.


Journal Articles

  1. Overcoming the Outcome Bias: Making Intentions Matter

    Ovul Sezer, Ting Zhang, Francesca Gino and Max Bazerman

    People often make the well-documented mistake of paying too much attention to the outcomes of others’ actions while neglecting information about the original intentions leading to those outcomes. In five experiments, we examine interventions aimed at reducing this outcome bias in situations where intentions and outcomes are misaligned. Participants evaluated an individual with fair intentions leading to unfavorable outcomes, an individual with selfish intentions leading to favorable outcomes, or both individuals jointly. Contrary to our initial predictions, participants weighed others’ outcomes more—not less—when these individuals were evaluated jointly rather than separately (Experiment 1). Consequently, separate evaluators were more intention-oriented than joint evaluators when rewarding and punishing others (Experiment 2a) and assessing the value of repeated interactions with these individuals in the future (Experiment 2b). Third-party recommenders were less outcome-biased in allocating funds to investment managers when making separate evaluations relative to joint evaluations (Experiment 3). Finally, raising the salience of intentions prior to discovering outcomes helped joint evaluators overcome the outcome bias, suggesting that joint evaluation made attending to information about intentions more difficult (Experiment 4). Our findings bridge decision-making research on the outcome bias and management research on organizational justice by investigating the role of intentions in evaluations.

    Keywords: outcome bias; intentions; joint evaluation; judgment; separate evaluation; Goals and Objectives; Prejudice and Bias; Judgments; Performance Evaluation; Outcome or Result;


    Sezer, Ovul, Ting Zhang, Francesca Gino, and Max Bazerman. "Overcoming the Outcome Bias: Making Intentions Matter." Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 137 (November 2016): 13–26. View Details
  2. Family Rituals Improve the Holidays

    Ovul Sezer, Michael I. Norton, Francesca Gino and Kathleen Vohs

    Rituals are central to family life. Three studies (N = 1098) tested the relationship between family rituals and holiday enjoyment and demonstrated that family rituals improve the holidays because they amplify family closeness and involvement in the experience. In Study 1, participants who reported having family rituals on Christmas were more likely to spend the holiday with family and to enjoy the holiday more. Moreover, while simply spending the holiday with family was associated with greater enjoyment, enacting a ritual while with family added significantly to that enjoyment. Study 2 replicated these findings for family rituals pertaining to a secular holiday, New Year’s Eve. Study 3 used experimental design and had participants either describe their rituals and then report their holiday enjoyment (as in Studies 1 and 2) or report their holiday enjoyment and then describe their rituals; in both conditions, being with family and enacting a ritual was associated with the greatest enjoyment, suggesting that it is having enacted rituals—and not merely reflecting on them—that enhances enjoyment. Participants were unlikely to engage in individual rituals (that is, on their own, without family involvement) and when they did, individual rituals were not associated with holiday enjoyment. In sum, three studies consistently demonstrate that family rituals on holidays are associated with feelings of closeness and greater intrinsic interest, leading to holiday enjoyment.

    Keywords: Happiness; Behavior; Satisfaction; Family and Family Relationships;


    Sezer, Ovul, Michael I. Norton, Francesca Gino, and Kathleen Vohs. "Family Rituals Improve the Holidays." Special Issue on the Science of Hedonistic Consumption. Journal of the Association for Consumer Research 1, no. 4 (October 2016): 509–526. View Details
  3. Bounded Awareness: Implications for Ethical Decision Making

    Max Bazerman and Ovul Sezer

    In many of the business scandals of the new millennium, the perpetrators were surrounded by people who could have recognized the misbehavior, yet failed to notice it. To explain such inaction, management scholars have been developing the area of behavioral ethics and the more specific topic of bounded ethicality—the systematic and predictable ways in which even good people engage in unethical conduct without their own awareness. In this paper, we review research on both bounded ethicality and bounded awareness and connect the two areas to highlight the challenges of encouraging managers and leaders to notice and act to stop unethical conduct. We close with directions for future research and suggest that noticing unethical behavior should be considered a critical leadership skill.

    Keywords: Ethics;


    Bazerman, Max, and Ovul Sezer. "Bounded Awareness: Implications for Ethical Decision Making." Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 136 (September 2016): 95–106. View Details
  4. Ethical Blind Spots: Explaining Unintentional Unethical Behavior

    Ovul Sezer, F. Gino and Max H. Bazerman

    People view themselves as more ethical, fair, and objective than others, yet often act against their moral compass. This paper reviews recent research on unintentional unethical behavior and provides an overview of the conditions under which ethical blind spots lead good people to cross ethical boundaries. First, we present the psychological processes that cause individuals to behave unethically without their own awareness. Next, we examine the conditions that lead people to fail to accurately assess others' unethical behavior. We argue that future research needs to move beyond a descriptive framework and focus on finding empirically testable strategies to mitigate unethical behavior.

    Keywords: Behavior; Ethics; Decision Choices and Conditions;


    Sezer, Ovul, F. Gino, and Max H. Bazerman. "Ethical Blind Spots: Explaining Unintentional Unethical Behavior." Special Issue on Morality and Ethics edited by Francesca Gino and Shaul Salvi. Current Opinion in Psychology 6 (December 2015): 77–81. View Details
  5. Vicarious Contagion Decreases Differentiation—and Comes with Costs

    Ovul Sezer and Michael I. Norton

    Baumeister et al. propose that individual differentiation is a crucial determinant of group success. We apply their model to processes lying in between the individual and the group—vicarious processes. We review literature in four domains—attitudes, emotions, moral behavior, and self-regulation—showing that group identification can lead to vicarious contagion, reducing individual differentiation and inducing negative consequences.

    Keywords: Moral Sensibility; Behavior; Groups and Teams; Attitudes; Emotions;


    Sezer, Ovul, and Michael I. Norton. "Vicarious Contagion Decreases Differentiation—and Comes with Costs." Behavioral and Brain Sciences 39 (2016): e162. View Details

Working Papers

  1. Humblebragging: A Distinct—and Ineffective—Self-Presentation Strategy

    Ovul Sezer, Francesca Gino and Michael I. Norton

    Self-presentation is a fundamental aspect of social life, with myriad critical outcomes dependent on others’ impressions. We identify and offer the first empirical investigation of a prevalent, yet understudied self-presentation strategy: humblebragging. Across seven studies including a week-long diary study and a field experiment, we identify humblebragging—bragging masked by a complaint or humility—as a common, conceptually distinct, and ineffective form of self-presentation. We first document the ubiquity of humblebragging across several domains, from everyday life to social media. We then show that both forms of humblebragging—complaint-based or humility-based—are less effective than straightforward bragging, as they reduce liking, perceived competence, and compliance with requests. Despite being more common, complaint-based humblebrags are less effective than humility-based humblebrags and are even less effective than simply complaining. We show that people choose to deploy humblebrags particularly when motivated both to elicit sympathy and impress others. Despite the belief that combining bragging with complaining or humility confers the benefits of each strategy, we find that humblebragging confers the benefits of neither, instead backfiring because it is seen as insincere.

    Keywords: Humblebragging; impression management; sincerity; liking; competence; interpersonal perception; Self-presentation; Perception; Marketing; Trust; Personal Development and Career;


    Sezer, Ovul, Francesca Gino, and Michael I. Norton. "Humblebragging: A Distinct—and Ineffective—Self-Presentation Strategy." Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 15-080, April 2015. (Revised February 2017.) View Details