You have a wonderful fashion sense. Those clothes you’re wearing today, for example — they look great!
You don’t believe me. You couldn’t possibly — after all, I’ve never seen you. But, chances are, on an unconscious level you really do believe me, and my compliment makes you feel warm and gooey inside. And your positive feelings predispose you to do something nice for me, so if I were a salesman or your subordinate or your colleague, that nice something, whatever it is, could definitely make my day.
You have a wonderful fashion sense
The distinction I’m drawing 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 unconscious ideas — known in research parlance as implicit attitudes — are stickier than conscious opinions. They tend to be relatively unaffected by contradictory information that we absorb explicitly (such as, in this case, the fact that I’m speaking to you through a blog post and couldn’t know whether you have a good fashion sense or dress more like Cyndi Lauper).
Persuade a customer or colleague on a conscious level, and he or she will retain that conviction only until a better counterargument comes along (to paraphrase my favorite blogger, Clif Reichard). Persuade a person on a gut level, and the feeling will last and last. And last.
“Implicit attitudes tend to remain untouched by contradictory explicit information,” Jaideep Sengupta, a professor of marketing at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, told me by phone the other day. “It’s a testament to how insidiously flattery affects us.”
Sengupta is a coauthor, along with Elaine Chan, a visiting assistant professor of marketing at the same institution, of “Insincere Flattery Actually Works: A Dual Attitudes Perspective,” which appeared recently in the Journal of Marketing Research. In their study, participants (students) 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 the ulterior motive was plain — the leaflet contained a message asking them to shop at the store. There was nothing subtle about the attempt to flatter — its obviousness was “over the top,” Sengupta says.
On a conscious level, the students discounted the value of the compliment because of its impersonal nature and the ulterior motive. But careful assessment of their implicit attitudes revealed that they felt more positively about the store than participants who hadn’t seen the flyer. These positive feelings could have an impact on a company’s bottom line, the researchers found: Given a choice, participants were more likely to choose a coupon from a store that had complimented them than from one that hadn’t.
The unconscious has always been an active playground, or battleground, for business — but usually only the marketing people ever venture to go there. Chan and Sengupta’s findings suggest, to me at least, that the stickiness of gut attitudes should be part of everyone’s calculations. Flattery, as Sengupta says, has an insidious ability to worm its way into the unconscious, where it creates persistent feelings that could affect the outcomes of all kinds of business interactions, from job interviews to sales to boardroom presentations.
By Andrew O'Connell
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