flattery will get you… somewhere

Now this is interesting. According to a study reported at Scientific American, people are still susceptible to flattery, even when they’re aware that the flattery if obvious and insincere:

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. [. . .]

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.

So, yes, our motives and attitudes are often less explicit and known to us than we’d like to think. There’s a few explanations for this, I think. The authors of the study speculate that viewers of the ad want to feel good about themselves, that these ads (like others) work by bringing up and addressing insecurities. A commenter at Feminist Philosophers (where I found the article) speculates that there is an implicit flattery in this obvious flattery: you have power and I (the speaker/writer) respects your power. I think there’s probably truth to both these.

Today was the first day of class, and my students and I discussed briefly about what makes a message persuasive. Appearing sincere came up during the conversation. We didn’t really address that much, but it would be interesting to share this with students and get their reactions. (I’m also thinking about those students who engage in obvious flattery with the hopes of better grades. I doubt it effects grades much, but I do think there’s something endearing about it… unless it’s too smarmy.)

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