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Only the Smartest and Best Will Read This! – What You Might Not Know About Flattery and Persuasion

Only the Smartest and Best Will Read This! – What You Might Not Know About Flattery and Persuasion

Posted by James Curtis on Jan 23rd 2014

For marketers, Robert Cialdini’s Six Principles of Influence are as common knowledge as addition or subtraction.

The cover of Robert Cialdini's book, Influence

Gotta respect the classics

  • Reciprocity
  • Commitment and Consistency
  • Social Proof
  • Liking
  • Authority
  • Scarcity

With their powers combined… (excuse the 80’s/90’s kid reference)

Tucked away in these 6 basic tools of persuasion are a lot of tricks and tactics that everyone uses.

Of course, as researchers continue to understand the human mind, we often find ourselves learning, unlearning, and relearning a lot of concepts.

We’re going to take a look at one of the most notorious items in the persuasion tool belt. Flattery.

Is Using Flattery to Persuade a Good Idea?

First, let me apologize for both my attempt at using flattery in the headline, and second, how bad I am at flattery – it’s not a gift I possess.

Today we’re going to take an in-depth, under-the-hood look at Flattery and its effects on our decision making. Under the microscope will be a great study from a few years back that sheds a lot of new light, and might have some of us rethinking our use of flattery in all wakes of life.

I like to think that we generally are less susceptible to blatant flattery in today’s society, whether from the stereotypical used car salesman to a bachelor looking to score a date, or even a daughter trying to get her mom to take her to see Catching Fire – flattery is still one of the most common ways we try to get what we want.

If flattery effective? Is it a cheap trick that can drive away customers? You’ll find many in various camps, but what does research say?

There have been a lot of fascinating studies on flattery. I would like to think that insincere, bogus flattery can put you worse off than if you hadn’t used it, though many studies have shown that flattery is, in fact, effective. At least up to a point.

The good news is that the general notion and initial studies suggest that flattering comments are discounted. As a result, when we receive flattering comments, we adjust our initial favorable reactions.

Up until a few years ago, most studies led us to believe that after we receive and process flattering compliments, we throw out how we initially felt entirely, and replace it with our true feelings. A study in the The Journal of Marketing Research conducted by Marketing Professors, Elaine Chan and Jaideep Sengputa, build on this notion (Insincere Flatter Actually Works: A Dual Attitude Perspective).

What they suggest is that instead of our initial feelings being overwritten by the new ones, the initial response co-exists with our adjusted response. Maybe the store employee told me that I look good in the pants I was trying on just because they tell everyone that to try to persuade them to buy the pants, but the fact that I recognize this as an insincere sales tactic does not mean that the positive reaction I felt when I first heard it is overwritten. It still plays a factor in my decision to buy or not.

Before we look into the findings of their study, and how we might be able to apply their research in our own marketing activities, let’s remember one thing:

You're the best! Now read this entire thing, and LOVE it!

You’re the best! Now read this entire thing, and LOVE it!

Now,…  let’s get a little technical.

Your Mind and the Mechanics of Flattery

Flattery resides in a galaxy of attitudes. You’re going to want to remember a few terms (bolded).

I like to think of it as a roller coaster. The train represents flattering comments that are pushed down the big drop. It hits you fast and sudden, drawing out what is referred to as an implicit attitude or response. Put your hands up and scream! Then a little later, you loop back around, and finally end up at the end of the ride.

The implicit attitude is an automatic, uncontrolled response to the flattery, or any other interaction. So when someone tells you, “Seeing you smile is better than watching the sunset,” the way you feel immediately after hearing that is your implicit attitude

Likewise, the explicit attitude is a controlled, thought out response. It’s processed. Conscious. When you get over the initial feelings of that compliment about your smile and realize they only want to ask you a favor, the feelings you are experiencing are your explicit attitude

At the end of the roller coaster ride, we reach our attitudinal outcome. Or basically, we decide how we feel about that person, or if we are going to do what they want us to do.

The experience is complete, we get off the roller coaster and gauge whether standing in line all that time was worth it. Of course, our attitudinal outcome is not limited to perception. It could also result in a specific action or behavior!

The basics are pretty straightforward. As noted earlier, if we are aware that we are being flattered as part of some other motive, we are likely to discount or even discredit our initial feelings (implicit attitude), replacing it with our delayed feelings (explicit attitude).

Dual attitudes theory argues against this concept of replacement when arriving at our attitudinal outcome. Instead of the explicit, conscious attitude wiping out the initial implicit attitude, they both affect the final result of our attitude.

This means that we can have a pair of opposing responses to something such as flattery! Just because you lost your lunch on the rollecoaster loop, you look back on the whole experience and still conclude you had fun regardless.

This raises a lot of questions as to how our attitudes may differ with flattery and ulterior motives. In a sales setting, is flattery hurting or helping?

Maybe an even more important question for marketers and consumers: which response is a better predictor of the attitudinal outcome? Is it how the nice words make us feel at first? Or is it how we feel about them when we realize what is going on?

The idea of both implicit and explicit responses affecting the outcome might have us rethinking how we use our persuasion toolset. The study explores this topic with 4 related experiments. Let’s dive in!

The Four Experiments

Throughout the various experiments, the researchers repeatedly used a direct marketing mail brochure for a new retail store.

The brochure contained information about the store and overtly flattering statements, insisting that they contacted recipients directly because they were fasionble and “stylish with a classy, chic dress style.”

To emphasize the true motive of the leaflet (getting people to go to the store), they ended it by requesting that recipients come shop at their store.

As a result, they were hoping to achieve 3 objectives:

  1. Establish that flattery not only supports dual attitude theory, but that the implicit attitude results in a more favorable response than their explicit attitude
  2. Investigate differences in how implicit and explicit attitudes affect our behavior (attitudinal outcome)
  3. Identify a theoretical boundary condition for the difference (what exactly is causing the differences?)

Experiment I – Which Predicts Intent Better: Implicit or Explicit?

Looking to support the idea that insincere flattery causes separate implicit and explicit attitudes, the study focused on measuring the two types of attitudes by breaking up the experiment into two parts after exposing test subjects to the retail store leaflet.

Participants were measured either on their implicit or explicit attitudes. The group having their implicit attitude measured had 5 seconds to answer questions about the store, while the explicit group was allowed as much time as they wanted.

After 3 days, both groups came back and indicated how likely they were to shop from the store and if they wold join the store’s customer loyalty program.

Finally, they stated if they thought the store had anything to gain from the flattering statements about their fashion sense.

Experiment I Results & Analysis

The results found that the prospective customers’ responses varied. Implicit attitudes were more favorable. Explicit attitudes were less favorable. On top of this, the implicit group believed that the store was more sincere than the explicit group. No surprises, yet.

What they found after this was that the implicit group had a higher correlation with intent to shop at the store 3 days after than the explicit group!

Simplified: Everyone’s attitudes came out as expected. They were initially more favorable, then later less favorable. When making a decision to shop at the store, the initial response to flattery was a better indicator if they would decide to go shop there later.

Even though their attitude dipped after the initial shock of flattery, the overall effects of flattery had more influence on their behavior! And remember, this is in spite of participants knowing that they are being smooth talked in an effort to get people through the door.

A series of graphs showing differences in implicit and explicit attitudes.

Experiment II – Indicators of Behavior

The follow-up experiment aimed to replicate the findings in the first experiment. Only a few changes were made.

They didn’t split up participants into separate groups. Instead, everyone provided their implicit and explicit attitudes.

Participants again indicated if their implicit attitude on two 9 point scales (favorable/unfavorable and good/bad).

They wanted to see if it mattered what order implicit and explicit attitudes were recorded, so they mixed it up, having some indicate their implicit reaction first and vice versa.

Finally, they didn’t collect any data on how the participants felt about the store.

Experiment II Results & Analysis

As expected, the 2nd experiment supported the findings in the first experiment, with there once again being a difference in implicit and explicit attitudes.

A graph from Experiment 2, confirming the results in Experiment 1

It confirmed that the order of attitude measurement has no effect on our implicit or explicit attitudes. Rather, implicit and explicit attitudes were the same even if participants answered questions about their later feelings before their uncontrolled feelings.

Basically, if I throw out the smile-better-than-a-sunset compliment at you again and someone asks how it made you feel, the feelings are the same regardless if you consider your immediate feelings before or after your subsequent feelings.

This data is big vote of confidence for dual attitude theory because our explicit attitude does not erase our implicit attitude. Instead, it shows that the two continue to co-exist. Thus, our explicit attitude is not an indicator on our resulting behavior, but just one part of the formula!

So not only do we know that, following flattery, our implicit and explicit feelings vary, but we also know that the initial feelings still have an active role – even when we know that we are being told nice things for less than genuine reasons!

Even larger, the findings show that implicit responses are actually a better indicator of our behavior than explicit! Should we interpret this as saying that we should be using blanket flattery in our marketing messages?

Well, before we all start loading up our marketing copy with some of Eddie Haskell’s best lines, let’s see what other insights the remaining experience yielded.

Experiment III – Is Timing a Factor on Decision Making?

A picture of a stopwatch


Related studies support the idea that implicit attitudes are better at predicting spontaneous behaviors.

This was shown in studies done by one set of researchers who examined implicit attitudes and body language, as well as a study by Robert Rydell and Allen McConnell, which focused on the distance we choose to sit from the object that generates an attitude response.

On the explicit side, research suggests that explicit attitudes are better indicators of deliberate, conscious behaviors.

With this in mind, we can take it as further support for this concept that we can have separate attitudes, both of which contribute to our behavioral outcome.

But there is more to the idea that implicit attitude can better predicting our behavior than meets the eye. The third experiment focuses on the effects of time on our attitudes and resulting behavior, and builds on the related research.

Sticking to the basic design of the previous experiments, participants were once again surveyed on how they felt toward the store and if they were trying to flatter them into shopping at the store (after seeing the leaflet).

Once again, they measured implicit attitude with a 5 second questionnaire right after reading the leaflet, and explicit attiude with an untimed questionnaire 3 days after.

Next, they threw in a follow-up, asking how likely participants would be to shop at the store, as well as if they had interest in going to a fashion show hosted by the store.

They measured the effects implicit and explicit attitudes have on choice by throwing in a coupon to the store in the brochure or to another, previously unmentioned store.

Finally, they answered questions asking if they felt the store was attempting to flatter for a hidden motive.

Experiment III Results & Analysis

As expected, most participants recognized the flattery in the brochure (71%), and 83% of them also pointed out the ulterior motive.A bar graph showing the difference in perceived intentions between implicit and explicit attitudes.

The data showed that the implicit responses were more favorable than the explicit, supporting the previous experiments.

When it came to picking between the two coupons, people chose the store in the leaflet 80% of the time when presented the option 3 days later. When given the choice immediately after, the number dropped to 64% of the people choosing the coupon for the store in the leaflet over the 2nd store’s coupon.

A picture illustrating the coupon choices over time in the third experiment.

Given what we know about implicit attitudes better predicting spontaneous behavior and explicit predicting deliberate behaviors, this comes off as a bit of a surprise!

The implicit attitude was a much better indicator of choice when given time between the reading of the flattering sales leaflet and the choice between the two coupons [3 days]. Likewise, the explicit attitude was the better indicator when everything was presented immediately.

So when having to make a decision quickly, our explicit attitude plays a larger role in that decision than the implicit, and when given time to mull it over, the feelings we had in the moment are actually the bigger factor.

So what’s going on here?

The research suggests a couple of possibilities.

The first possibility: our initial attitude towards flattery stays stored in our brain’s memory banks where we can easily recall those initial, subconscious feelings at any point later.

Possibility #2: It could suggest what the study refers to as the dissociation thesis. Which basically argues that we separate ourselves from the experience of someone trying to persuade us after enough time has passed.

I like to think of the dissociation thesis like when a rocket jettisons its thrusters. We don’t really hang onto what got us there; persuasively speaking. We just know where we are at the time (OUTER SPACE!), and have no choice but to make decisions accordingly.

A picture of an Apollo rocket as it detaches from its thrusters

Over time, do we separate ourselves from the experiences we have had?

The study strongly supports the first possibility.

By running the same experiment without the flattering messages in the brochur, a follow-up provides a lot of evidence that we don’t dissociate the store/person/experience from attempts to be persuaded. Thus, supporting the theory that we are able to easily access our implicit attitude as time goes on.

Those fleeting, impulse, split second feelings might be very temporary, but their effects stick with us. From there, we access them at any point later to influence our decision making!

Now that we know that flattery is actually more effective over time (or at least the influence of the implicit attitude that results from flattery), let’s take a look at the final experiment.

Experiment IV – What about when we hear bad things about the person saying nice things?

Two women gossiping, whispering in ear.

The final experiment examined how hearing our choices might change when hearing bad things about our flatterers.

The final experiment of the study sought to look at the effects of flattery when we are given negative information about the flatterer.

Keeping much of the design intact, test participants were first asked to write either something good about themselves, or something they thought was bad and wanted to change.

Following this self-esteem manipulation, participants read the all-too-familiar store pamphlet containing all the flattering comments about the subject’s fashion sense. After measuring implicit or explicit attitudes, participants were given a filler task.

Then came the troubling information about the store. Participants read an account by a recent customer who called the staff unhelpful, adding that the store’s selection was mediocre.

Finally, they measured implicit and explicit attitudes one more time.

Experiment IV Results & Analysis

The findings provided support for what is known as self-enhancement motive. Psychologists Constantine Sedikides and Mark Alicke define self-enhancement motive as a person’s, “desire to maximize the positivity, and minimize the negativity, of their self-views.”

By having participants write something good or bad about themselves, we are able to see self-enhancement motive in full effect.

George Michael from Arrested Development, down on his luck.

Flattery is effective when our ego’s need to be fed. When we have big heads, not so much.

A graph demonstrating the self-enhancement motive

Explicit judgments are resistant to how we feel about ourselves

As a result, when saying something bad about themselves, participants felt a greater impact from flattery in their implicit attitude. It gave them a stronger immediate boost.

When writing something good about themselves, the difference between their implicit and explicit attitudes was barely noticed. In fact, their explicit attitudes were pretty much the same in either context; positive or negative self-reflection. Self-affirmation, however, resulted in a huge drop in how favorable implicit attitudes were (measuring less favorably than the explicit)!

After reading negative comments about the store, the participants showed no change in their implicit attitudes. How they felt in those first moments stayed the same. However, their explicit attitudes suffered a big hit. Here’s a chart showing the differences.

A chart showing the differences in our response to flatter when hearing negative comments about our suitor

The study shows that we can assume we immediately respond well to flattery if we are feeling down on ourselves, but those initial feelings are less responsive (if not more likely to generate a negative reaction) if we are already feeling good about ourselves.

Taking it further, implicit attitudes are cemented once they’ve been made. When we hear bad things about our flatterers, our first feelings don’t change. Those subsequent explicit attitudes, though? They’re significantly more influenced by negative comments made about anyone complimenting you.

Knowing that the implicit attitude is more resistant negative information, but also more prone to be fueled by need to feel affirmed has big implications on flattery.

Dating is a good example. This helps explain why we see blatant smooth talkers continue to enjoy so much success.

When Rico Suave enters a room and tells every woman he sees that they have the prettiest smile and beautiful eyes, those initial feelings elicited by his flattery don’t get touched by their friends warning them that he is a heartbreaker — true or not. It simply doesn’t matter what we know about him, his character, or his motives. That initial fantastic feeling of flattery fluttering through us is more or less locked away in our internal memory vault, unable to be touched.

It really isn’t any wonder why our proverbial playboy keeps having success despite of his reputation when recalling two things:

  1. Both implicit and explicit attitudes jointly affect our behavior
  2. Implicit attitudes are better indicators of outcome over a period of time

This might shed some light as to why those who play the numbers game appear to have success beyond the mere statistical inflation.

If you’re saying enough nice things to enough people, you’re likely to accidentally catch someone in a moment when their self-esteem is weakened, further adding strength to the flattery glue formula. Just don’t forget that the implicit response was worse than the explicit when participants felt confident in themselves!

Discussion and Further Questions

Photo Credit: Marco Bellucci

Photo Credit: Marco Bellucci

Whether as a marketer, consumer, or anyone else caught in a persuasive context, anyone can certainly take some of the insights from this fascinating study and apply it to their own persuasive use of flattery.

Personally, I wouldn’t recommend trying to flatter every potential customer, but at least you now have some evidence that it can actually be effective. Overall, I think empathy is the key to persuasion. Empathy is the compass that guides us to the proper tools in our persuasion tool belt.

For instance, if you can pick up on if someone is looking to feed that desire for self-affirmation, then a sincere compliment that is contextually relevant will get you a long way. Plus, you’re more likely to register favorably with both implicit and explicit reactions, which extends the range of the timeline of which you can hope to persuade someone.

As with anything that gives us a greater understanding, there are still more questions to be answered.

For instance, Chan and Sengupta admit that there’s a possibility that other social factors can affect how resistant we are to flattery. The note that their study was conducted in Hong Kong, where there has been less prior research and exposure on persuasion tactics than in North America.

In their own words, “it seems plausible that that the more knowledge consumers possess about persuasion tactics, the more negative their explicit judgments of flattery will be,” and that the better versed we are in persuasion tactics that we, “might even make such negative inferences relatively effortlessly.”

Some related studies give credence to this suggestion. It has been shown that our implicit and explicit attitudes are more resistant and influential when presented to us differently (e.g., verbally as opposed to a mail brochure).

Also, while we know that our explicit response to flattery is less favorable than our implicit response, one might wonder if our ‘discounted’ outcome is worse off than if there had never been any flattery to begin with. However, additional studies suggest that our explicit attitudes are the same whether we have been told something flattering or not.


That was a lot to take in! So take a moment, maybe have a brain moment like our friend Eric Wareheim is, then let’s recap.

Classic mind blown gif

To conclude what we know as a result of this study:

  • Both our initial and conscious reactions to flattery impact our behavior
  • Flattery results in a more favorable initial response; even when we know there is an ulterior motive
  • Over time, our initial response tends to influence our behavior more than our [tooltip type=”link” link=”#attitudes” tooltip=”Our controlled, thought out response to something” style=”auto”]explicit attitude[/tooltip]
  • Our [tooltip type=”link” link=”#attitudes” tooltip=”Our unconscious, uncontrolled reaction to something” style=”auto”]implicit attitudes[/tooltip] are affected by flattery as a result of our desire to see ourselves in a positive light
  • Negative information does not impact our implicit attitude
  • The presence or lack of flattery does not make a difference in our explicit judgments
  • There are still many questions to be answered about flattery and how our implicit and explicit attitudes affect our behavior

With all these revelations on flattery, one has to wonder how our implicit and explicit attitudes influence our decision making with other persuasion tactics, or even how implicit and explicit judgments impact our behavior when making a gesture that elicits a negative first impression. It’s thought provoking, and there are many related studies that open the discussion further, but I’m inclined to think that, from what we learned in this study, implicit and explicit attitudes work in similar ways with other persuasion tactics.

If nothing else, it gives some credence to a lot of sales tactics we have practically seen since dawn of time. Even the promotional products we sell at USImprints are a great example. In many ways, businesses handing out giveaways are playing the same implicit – explicit attitude game. As a result of improving our implicit attitudes toward the business or product, hopefully we later decide to give them our patronage.

Ok, deep breath! I know that was a lot to take in, but we’ve gotten through it! If you’re as nerdy about this stuff as I am, I highly recommend giving the study a look for yourself. With any luck, it wasn’t too dry, or presented incorrectly. Hopefully these insights were as interesting to you as they were to me!

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