Doctoral Student

Ovul Sezer

Ovul Sezer is a Ph.D. candidate in Organizational Behavior program 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 research, Sezer focuses on self-presentation and the behaviors used to convey specific information about or an image of oneself to others. She studies how people present themselves to others and whether these attempts are successful in social interactions.

The question of how to present oneself most effectively has been studied for centuries by scholars from Aristotle to Goffman, each arguing that self-presentation is an integral aspect of social interaction because both material and social rewards depend on others’ impressions. The motives underlying self-presentation generally emerge from the desire to be liked or to establish a particular reputation personally and professionally. Prior research has identified several self-presentation tactics used by individuals in an attempt to achieve one of these goals. For example, to achieve liking, people may engage in strategies such as ingratiation, while to convey an impression of competence and establish a reputation, people engage in self-promotion strategies such as bragging.

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. 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.


    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

Working Papers

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

    Ovul Sezer, Francesca Gino and Michael I. Norton

    Humblebragging—bragging masked by a complaint—is a distinct and, given the rise of social media, increasingly ubiquitous form of self-promotion. We show that although people often choose to humblebrag when motivated to make a good impression, it is an ineffective self-promotional strategy. Five studies offer both correlational and causal evidence that humblebragging has both global costs—reducing liking and perceived sincerity—and specific costs: it is even ineffective in signaling the specific trait that a person wants to promote. Moreover, humblebragging is less effective than simply complaining, because complainers are at least seen as sincere. Despite people's belief that combining bragging and complaining confers the benefits of both self-promotion strategies, humblebragging fails to pay off.

    Keywords: Humblebragging; impression management; self-promotion; sincerity; 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. View Details