Imagine this … a new role for implicit attitudes

Imagine this:  You are about to give a paper at a fairly demanding conference. A lot of people in the audience are senior and highly respected researchers. You start out by telling everyone how very glad you are to be in the midst of such great thinkers, that you expect to learn so much at the conference, and that the very idea that they will think for a short time about your work is very exciting to you.

Here’s the surprise: It might work. The one time I have seen this in action, it very much did work. It was one of those conferences where the moderators call almost exclusively on men, but there was a very noticeable exception. That’s right, the person thrilled to be there.

That isn’t actually all that surprising to some recent researchers. Obviously manipulative flattery can work very well. And here’s the surprising thing: it works even when the audience consciously identifies it as such and resolves not to be influenced.

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.</blockquote>


I’m afraid it’s evolution and the brain at work.  We act, and often have to act, before conscious deliberation can do much.  Our brain gets us aligned with what’s going on in the environment in ways that are pre-conscious and not necessary sensitive to conscious rational thought, which is certainly liable to mess things  things up anyway.  (As Hume saw centuries ago.)  Unfortunately, the pre- or un-conscious systems may not be all that good at separating the real from the fake. 

In the current case, our susceptibility to the fake messages varies with how much we need to be cheered up about ourselves, the researchers claim.  If you’re feeling good about yourself, the flattery will have less  effect.  But here again this is all quite independent of what you’re consciously thinking about it all.

There’s a clear lesson here for students and junior faculty.  If you’re worried about how you’ll be  judged, you know what to do!  Who cares if it is obvious.

Mind you,  the effect you have might depend on how well your target approximates a normal human being.  You need to be extra careful in academia.

16 thoughts on “Imagine this … a new role for implicit attitudes

  1. One who flatters you with ulterior motives thinks you have the power to do something important to them, and people like to be thought powerful. Rather than being unconsciously deceived by the overt flattery, perhaps people are unconsciously responding to the implicit sincere compliment to their power.

  2. So I guess the trick would be to first stimulate self-criticism in the audience (unless you are lucky enough to have an audience composed mostly of people whose self-esteem is already in need of “a little pick-me up”), then dish out the transparent flattery.

    I like Aaron’s point, though I think a lot of the time the recipient of flattery enjoys it without believing in, or being duped by, its content, but simply for its reassuring or confirmatory deference to her relative status. (And maybe the farther from the truth the content of the flattery obviously is, the more satisfying to its recipient because this more clearly reveals how subordinate the flatter feels relative to the recipient?)

  3. You know, I can also imagine it (sometimes) working in a different way. A super-deferential comment like that might make me really aware of the commenter’s insecurities– which would make me go out of my way to encourage them.

  4. And I suppose the reaction you describe could co-exist with, follow upon, be layered on top of, the (more basic?, more immediate?) enjoyment of the status difference a super-deferential comment might produce.

  5. It might be good to start by thinking of this in a sales context. Suppose you go into a car dealership (as we say in the States) and the sales person says to you something like the following:

    I’m hoping we can do a special deal for you; I’ll talk to my manager. Because you are just the sort of person we like to see driving our cars. Just seeing you driving the car will make others want to have one.

    Now you can probably get that this is a complete fabrication. But it’s going to make you feel better about the place, the saleperson, etc. Even though you may be saying to yourself “Oh no, I’m not going to get caught with this garbage.’

    So that’s more or less a purer case. I suppose if you are in a Mercedes Benz place, then you might also recognize that the person is figuring you are far along on the road to elitehood that you have the money to buy on of their models. But this, like the appeal to power, is an extra bit. You’re adding in a glimpse of an attractive truth to puff you up. And the point, I think, is that the perp doesn’t need to add that in to get you taken in.

    Similarly, I might feel that the story is so off the wall I’m in the presence of a desperate company who really, really need my cash. This might be Jender’s version. I don’t know how that works, but before I tried it, I’d worry that it might cancel out the ego puffery part. The point of the puff stuff is to get the person feeling really good and in a very favorable environment. And if you do that, you’ll get more of what you want. Despite the resistance.

    I have to confess that when i was a grad student I knew some people who went in for this. I was so stupid, I was convinced that obvious lying would count against one in a philosophy context. And of course seeing someone lie to others, or to a whole audience, is a turn off. But if done in the right context, it worked.

    I suppose deep down philosophy profs may be depressed about themselves??

  6. That is, I assume that if you are looking at Mercedes, the idea you are getting to the elite is very attractive. I have to confess that Mercedes and Jaguars both strike me independently as very, very beautiful. Or selected models anyway. Not so most of the others, with the exception of some Saabs. Well, and some others…

  7. Now, after that irrelevant bit about cars, I think there are very manipulative people who do both butter one up and tear one down. I think that their aim is to get you intoxicated enough with the praise that you’ll want their esteem, which makes you want to respond to their criticism. And so they can control you. Too nasty.

  8. Along the lines of what Aaron said, Emerson said “Men use to tell us that we love flattery, even though we are not deceived by it, because it shows that we are of importance enough to be courted.”

  9. Almost everyone likes to receive flattery, even very obvious flattery, but they like to be flattered about certain things. I might get irritated if you flatter me about how stylish my new shirt is, but feel great if you flatter me about how brillant this comment is. You have to sense out each person’s flattery weak point.

  10. Dear all, I wish I could remove my above comments, since I addressed indirectly a problem that should be addressed directly, or so I now think.

    Here’s the problem: most comments here are talking about how flattery affects them consciously or how one’s reaction makes sense. Two points:

    1. The research, however, is about a pre-conscious influence of which you probably have no direct awareness, or at most a bit of awareness. In that way, it is like the implicit attitudes that show up in an Implicit Association Test (see the Gladwell-Oprah discussion a few posts down).

    2. Whether or how the reaction makes sense is tricky. I suspect it should go over onto the side of things that don’t have to make sense. Even though you don’t believe the flattery, think it is bad to flatter people in this way, recognize and are irritated by the fact that they’re just trying to separate you from your money, it still makes you feel better and leaves your favorably inclined. But not for any reason, except perhaps that it appears human beings deeply love external praise, however false and stupid it is. (Which is not to deny that something could over ride the positive unconscious sense you are getting. E.g., it might be put in a way that scares you.0

    I think from the way I’m reading it that it doesn’t matter what you get praised for as long as you get an association betwee “me” and “somehow special.”

  11. So many of the comments center on the most extreme scenario of empty, intentionally manipulative, false flattery, in light of the research on marketing. But let me take just a moment to defend the professional in the opening scenario; such expressions of appreciation and inclusion would be highly likely to come out of my own mouth, so I can’t help resembling these remarks and pointing out that it’s not merely empty b.s. to involve the room in one’s goals by reporting one’s gratitude and enthusiasm!

    The research suggests something that I think academics should take comfort in, actually: While listeners’ analytical and habitually critical minds may consciously consider whether or not one is manipulating them, listeners’ dispositions align with the speaker’s, as the excerpt says, “outside of their awareness.”

    Heaven knows, I have relied on this being the case in my classes.

  12. Profbigk: you remind me of a tempting practice: praising your class before they write student evaluations.

    For women that might work in a couple of ways, including reassuring them that you do answer to the schema for women: nurturing, etc.

  13. Rob, thanks so much. I’m going to try to remember to do a post on this…Among other things, we could trade hints.

  14. JJ, I’d give you a good review if you were my prof. You have the most charming, yet authoritative way of telling me to “shut up and read the post-and a few more stacks of textbooks- before you comment,” without ever resorting to such a terse statement. And that’s coming from the bottom of the other side of my 5-hour-ago chocolate cookie peak.

    Of course, you don’t have the power to trash my GPA or accuse me of being “threatening”. Even if you did have that power, or found my pseudo-Kali-esque “I hate top-down-dead-white-male-philosophy-guys” grimace anything other than comical, I believe that any and all “in a pig’s eye” statements on your part would be courteous and helpful.

    Believing that keeps me rubbernecking this site! Sincerely.

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