Flattery Works, Sometimes

The Mae West attributed quote “flattery will get you everywhere” may have been true.

A new study in the Journal of Marketing Research shows that flattery leaves a lasting and positive impression of the flatterer, even when people believe it is insincere. In the experiment, participants were shown a flyer from a fictitious clothing store complimenting them for being stylish and chic. It didn’t matter to the participants that the compliment wasn’t aimed specifically at them or that there was a clearly articulated ulterior motive asking them to shop at the store. They were 50% more likely to choose a coupon from the store that flattered them over a coupon from a similar store.

On a conscious level, the students discounted the value of the compliment because of its impersonal nature and the ulterior motive. But careful assessment of their unconscious feelings — known in research as implicit attitudes — revealed they felt more positively about the store than participants who hadn’t seen the flyer. This study supports several others showing that gut feelings are stickier than conscious opinions.

The authors conclude that our susceptibility to flattery stems from an innate desire to feel good about ourselves.  This belief has important ramifications for us as marketers. If we persuade a customer consciously using rational facts, they will retain the conviction until a better counterargument comes along. However, if we persuade a customer on a gut level however, they will retain the belief even in the face of contradictory evidence.

On the surface, it seems like we ought to be able to apply this technique with interpersonal relationships or at work. For example, perhaps we could use insincere flattery to convince our boss into giving us a better performance review and a raise.

Apparently, we can’t.  According to research from Darren Treadway and others, if a supervisor perceives a subordinate’s flattery as insincere, the employee will be rated lower on job performance. The supervisor will only rate the employee higher if he/she truly believes that the sentiment is sincere. Unfortunately, most flatterers are taking a risk because they aren’t very good at it.

Harvard Business Review asked Treadway to try to explain the fundamental difference in the two studies. Treadway speculated that perceived sincerity flattery may be more important with personal interactions. Insincere flattery does not change gut feelings when delivered face-to-face.

If you’re not careful, flattery will get you nowhere.

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7 Responses to Flattery Works, Sometimes

  1. Oski July 12, 2010 at 5:21 am #

    Damn you! You raise my hopes and then you dash them 🙂

  2. Tom Raftery July 12, 2010 at 7:56 am #

    I think Confucius said it best when he said:

    Where there is flattery, there is a fool

  3. Timo Elliott July 12, 2010 at 11:50 am #

    Clearly, the right technique is to find SOMETHING about your boss that you can admire and praise that, sincerely… The one time I found myself unable to do this, the person was fired within a few weeks, thankfully…

  4. Holly Roland July 13, 2010 at 10:41 pm #

    I wonder if this works across global regions…

  5. Jonathan July 21, 2010 at 8:04 am #

    Holly, it’s an interesting question but I note that the shopper study was conducted in APJ.

  6. JeanneBrown (@JeanneBrown) October 17, 2013 at 12:49 pm #

    Treadway’s study looks at how supervisors perceive a subordinate’s flattery. What about the other way around?

    In particular, when a supervisor is giving a subordinate negative feedback or constructive criticism, is it better to couch the criticism in a “compliment sandwich” as my 9 year old calls it? As in:
    “You did x really well”
    “You need to work on y”
    “Keep up the good effort on z”

    From a workforce productivity perspective, it would be interesting to know how phrasing praise/criticism might influence how an employee behaves.


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