Flattery Will Get You Everywhere

Shirley M. Mueller, M.D.

Have you ever been on a receiving end of a blatantly flattering comment from a sales associate or a financial advisor? There's a reason for that: It works. Researchers found that people respond positively to flattery, even when they know the flatterer has an ulterior motive.

“You are the most intelligent person I have ever met, not to mention your charm, wit and good looks.”

Flattering comments such as these are what we should be saying to more people, more of the time, because they work, according to a marketing study by researchers Elaine Chan and Jaideep Sengupta. Why? Flattery increases our chances of putting ourselves in the recipient’s best light. This is especially true for those who are looking for goodwill from the beneficiary of the flattery.

The two researchers provided strong evidence for this concept in their recent paper entitled “Insincere Flattery Actually Works: A Dual Attitudes Perspective,” published in the Journal of Marketing Research in February 2010. The investigation differed from earlier studies about the same subject in that the researchers used a twofold perspective about attitudes: One was the implicit or original positive response to the flattery; the other was the discounted or explicit response, because the recipient knew that there was an ulterior motive for the compliment.

As it turns out, the implicit attitude is more compelling than the explicit response, and is a better predictor of later behavior in regard to the flatterer. So, even when the motives of the compliment-giver are taken into account, the residual positive feelings often continue to exercise a positive effect on the recipient actions.

Here’s how the research worked. Fifty-five student subjects were exposed to an overly flattering message in the form of direct mail from a retail store. The supposition was that the students would discount this message when they assessed the store, because they knew the positive statements had an ulterior motive (i.e., to influence their opinion of the store). Instead, however, the students rated the store higher after viewing the flattering message -- not only when they didn’t have much time to think about their response, but also when they were asked a few days later.

Interestingly, the positive response to the message was heightened in subjects who engaged in self-criticism and was diminished in students who practiced self-affirmation. This suggests that insincere flattery works especially well on recipients who don’t feel good about themselves.

What does all this mean for you? Flattery, even when not based on the truth, can engender positive results for flatterer. So the next time you’re on the receiving end of a blatantly flattering comment from, say, a sales associate or an investment advisor, remind yourself of the old saying: “You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”