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Does Flattery Work? An Investigation into the Art of Persuasion and Seduction.

The text investigates the effectiveness of flattery and complements in the sales and workplace context.

Flattery is one of the oldest and most used skills to please and gratify people of importance for the single purpose of getting favours. Today flattery is used in various forms and for various purposes. Offering a pleasing and sincere complements is common among friends and loved ones. Of course, flattery is still used aggressively in marketing and in the workplace with the single purpose to obtain something from the targeted person. While offering pleasing complements to someone has become a normal behaviour in our modern society, the question of effectiveness still remains unknown. It seems that flattery works most of the time. Research shows that the reason flattery works is because human beings have a basic desire to believe in good things about themselves (Fogg & Nass, 1997). This is not surprising since human beings like to be prised about their skills, abilities, tastes and aptitudes, to name just a few.

What happens, however, when the flattery is insincere and when the recipient knows that this is driven by a hidden motive? For example, a sales person who offers prospective customers insincere complements about an expensive outfit may be less credible by the target. Intuition along with the common belief suggests that the recipient will discard the flattery comments (the implicit attitude) and will correct it with the discounted evaluation (the explicit attitude).

To find out if this is true Elaine Chan and Jaideep Sengupta of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology have conducted an experiment (2010). In the experiment, students where identified as would-be clothing shoppers that received a flattering flyer from a store with the following content: “We’re contacting you because you’re fashionable and stylish” along with an invitation to visit the store (Chan and & Sengupta, 2010). The findings surprised researches. The results from the experiments yielded that the flattery in a sales context resulted in dual evaluation. Instead of being replaces by the corrected explicit reaction, the positive implicit reaction coexisted with the explicit reaction. The positive implicit attitude has remained in the brain on a subconscious level. The reason for these two seemingly contradicting attitudes coexisting in our brain is because different parts of the brain are responsible for these two attitudes. This coexistence also made it easier to influence the shopper in the future encounters. It seems that positive implicit reaction is much easier extracted for our subconscious than the explicit reaction. Thus, while a marketer may be refused in the present, it may have a higher chance in the future.

It didn’t even matter that the insincere flattery was impersonal and had a clear ulterior motive for profit. The shoppers (students in this experiment) were enchanted anyway. For instance, shoppers have chosen the coupon from the store that had flattered them over a coupon from a similar store even though knowing that the flattery was not true. The experiment showed that even insincere flattery works. This has a huge impact for marketers and business in general since it shows that erasing those insincere flatteries from our subconscious is not so easy. Even when customers discard the positive attitudes, the unconscious feeling still resides in our memory.

While insincere and bogus flattery seems to work in a sales environment, does it work in the workplace? Can employees use flattery (be it sincere or not) to get promoted or get a salary increase from their manager/supervisor? According to Darren Treadway of the University at Buffalo, flattery can go either way (HBR, 2010). He found out that when managers perceive the flattery as being a ploy to get ahead, they will fire back by lowering employee’s job performance. On the other hand, when managers where fooled to believe that the complements were sincere, they rated the complimenter’s performance higher. In other words, when done right flattery works. Of course, this doesn’t mean that anyone engaging in a complement will be able to fool the target and obtain whatever he or she wants. It takes skill (and practice) to be able to deceive the victim.

References:

Fogg, B.J., Nass, C. I. (1997), “Silicon sycophants: The effects of computers that flatter” International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 46 (4), 551–61. Retrieved August 5, 2010, from Business Source Corporate database

Chan, E., & Sengupta, J. (2010). Insincere Flattery Actually Works: A Dual Attitudes Perspective. Journal of Marketing Research (JMR), 47(1), 122-133. doi:10.1509/jmkr.47.1.122.

(2010). What We're Watching in... Business Psychology. Harvard Business Review, 88(7/8), 22-28. Retrieved from Business Source Corporate database.

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