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Flattery Will Get You Far

Even obviously manipulative compliments are remarkably effective



iStock/Stacey Newman

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If appeals like this make you roll your eyes, you’re not alone. Most people tend to not appreciate flattery accompanied by obvious ulterior motives, and consider themselves fairly adept at determining whose compliments are sincere and whose are BS. Great tie, boss! Professor, your article redefined my entire understanding of human nature. I know we just met, gorgeous, but I’ve already fallen in love.

But what if this stuff actually works ? And not just on the suckers who can’t tell the difference between the sincere and the insincere, but on those who recognize these techniques for what they are. Such was the hypothesis of a new study, conducted by Elaine Chan and Jaideep Sengupta at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and published in the Journal of Marketing Research.

Participants in the study were asked to evaluate the merits of a new department store opening in the area based on one of the store’s advertisements. In addition to describing the new store’s offerings, the ad lauded readers for their impeccable sense of style and eye for high fashion. While participants overwhelmingly categorized the pamphlet as flattery with the ulterior motive of pushing blouses, the experimenters were more interested in how their attitudes would be influenced at the implicit level. Might participants develop a non-conscious positive association with the department store, even after rejecting the ad as meaningless puffery? And if so, would this implicit reaction be a better predictor of decisions and behavior down the road? Will even the people who are wise to advertising tricks end up at the register, credit card in hand?

It turns out that implicit attitudes towards the store were more positive than explicit attitudes. They were also better predictors of reported likelihood of making future purchases, as well as likelihood of joining the store’s club. So it seems that while participants quickly dismissed these ads at the explicit level, the flattery was exerting an important effect outside their awareness.

The authors speculated that the susceptibility to flattery stemmed from a simple desire to feel good about themselves. Indeed, we hold ourselves in high esteem, a phenomenon known as the above-average effect. Ask a group of people how good they are at driving, chances are they will all consider themselves to be above the mean. Of course, this is statistically unlikely. So, it is not surprising that we are particularly receptive to messages consistent with such a rosy-eyed view of our abilities and characteristics. We may dismiss it offhand when a subordinate compliments our new haircut, but deep down we’re thinking, “You know what?  I do look good”.

In order to test whether the influence of insincere flattery on attitudes is driven by the motivation to self-enhance, the experimenters created two conditions – one in which participants were asked to write about an aspect of their personality that they would like to change and one in which they wrote about a valued trait. As predicted, engaging in self-criticism amplified the effect of flattery on implicit attitudes while self-affirmation tempered this effect. In other words, those of us who could use a little pick-me up to begin with are particularly vulnerable to the message behind a smooth sales pitch.

So, awareness of when we’re being put on may not be enough to curb the effectiveness of insincerity. Surely most people recognize that after drinking Bud Light a gang of gorgeous men and women will not be bursting into their apartment, eager to toast their new best friend. Or that they are one prescription drug away from not only lowering cholesterol but happily prancing through meadows with family and friends. What this research suggests, however, is that the implicit positivity we experience as a result of viewing these images could play an important role in what we reach for when standing in the liquor store staring at a freezer full of cheap beer. You may not know why, but you’d feel pretty good about a Bud right now. And while you feel certain to you that your preference is not due to those silly ads (just like it might seem obvious to a manager that they didn’t promote a candidate because he brings her donuts every morning), perhaps it is the certainty with which we dismiss these kinds of manipulative and deceptive appeals that allows them to hold such sway.

Are you a scientist? Have you recently read a peer-reviewed paper that you want to write about? Then contact Mind Matters co-editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe, where he edits the Sunday Ideas section. He can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com

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