You have an amazing fashion sense. Those clothes you’re wearing today — they look great! Seriously!
Of course, you don’t believe me. But chances are, on an unconscious level you do believe me, and my compliment makes you feel warm and gooey inside, enough to predispose you to do something nice for me. Muwahahaha
Usually, when a friend gives you a compliment, you feel flattered because you take it as a sincere compliment. That’s because friends don’t usually have an ulterior motive to make you like them any more than they should. But what if a salesman at CarMax or the hairstylist at your salon gives you a compliment? Normally, your BS meter should go off, discounting that compliment because you realize that they both have a financial motive to flatter you and keep you as a customer. But this is all happening on a conscious level. What is going on at the unconsciously? How are your behaviors affected by these efforts to flatter you?
The distinction between conscious thoughts and unconscious feelings is crucial. We can hold opposite conscious and unconscious views of the same subject at the same time, as we all know, but what most people aren’t aware of is that our unconscious ideas and feelings have a tremendous reign over our behavior, much more than we give it credit for.
Jaideep Sengupta, along with Elaine Chan, both professors of marketing at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, examined how flattery affects our decision-making. In their study, participants were shown a flyer complimenting them for being stylish and chic and were asked to imagine that it had come from a clothing store. The participants knew perfectly well the compliment wasn’t aimed specifically at them, and their ulterior motive was plain — the leaflet contained a message asking them to shop at their store. There was nothing subtle about the attempt to flatter — its obviousness was “over the top”.
On a conscious level, the participants discounted the value of the compliment because of its impersonal nature and the ulterior motive. However, their results suggest that even after discounting, the initial positive reaction to the flattering message does not get wiped out; instead, it coexists with the discounted evaluation. When participants were given a choice, they were more likely to choose a coupon from a store that had complimented them than from one that hadn’t. So even though they were consciously aware of the fact that they we re being flattered insincerely, they still chose the store that complimented them. This may seem weird, but to me, this makes sense. Human beings are social creatures and we are driven to pursue validation. Even if the validation is blatantly insincere, I still think many, if not most, people would prefer that over no recognition at all. Chan and Sengupta’s findings suggest that flattery has an insidious ability to pierce through the conscious mind and into the unconscious, where it creates persistent feelings that could affect the outcomes of all kinds of activities.
Two things to take away from this post:
Flattery, even insincere flattery, works. Also, stay as far far away from marketers and people with MBA’s. They know too much…
Source: “Insincere Flattery Actually Works: A Dual Attitudes Perspective” Journal of Marketing Research (2010).
Image: Wesley Bedrosian for The Boston Globe