Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Flattery will get you far !

Dilbert: We find you fascinating (, 2009).

It is simple – we tend to like those who flatter us. As illustrated in the Dilbert comic strip, after some insincere flattering, the boss is easily persuaded to comply with his employees’ request to tweet about his daily activities. Whilst the boss is being blinded by the “feel good” factors of being complimented, the employees are enjoying their control of knowing when their boss is going to walk into the office. Don’t feel sorry for the fellow, you and I have probably been fooled by this persuasive technique too! A considerable amount of research suggests flattery to be a commonly used persuasion tactic that involves giving someone a compliment in order to get something in return.

This technique is demonstrated in a quasifield study carried out by Hendrick, Borden, Giesen, Murray and Seyfried (1972). Four hundred residents of Akron, Ohio were obtained via mail to complete a questionnaire. The amount of effort requested from the participants was either low (one- page questionnaire) or high (seven- page questionnaire). Each questionnaire sent to the participants was attached to a cover letter, which either included or did not include adjectives flattering the respondent (e.g., kind, generous, gracious), and it included or did not include adjectives flattering the solicitor (e.g., earnestly/ sincerely/ respectfully ask). Thus, the flattery tactics used in the cover letters constituted a 2 by 2 factorial design within both the low- and high-effort requests for help. The number of questionnaires returned in each condition is the dependent variable in this study. 

The results indicated no differences in questionnaire return rate due to flattery in the low-effort condition. However, this was not the case within the high-effort condition. Both the standard polite and double flattery conditions yielded low return rates of .10 and .08, respectively. Nonetheless, when ingratiation terms were applied to either the solicitor or to the respondent, the return rates doubled to .24 and .29 respectively. These results are illustrated in the table below. 

From this study it can be concluded that flattery may not be as effective if the task asked of someone requires minimal effort. So maybe, if the employees in the Dilbert comic asked for their boss to tweet once a month, their efforts at complimenting their boss would not have had a significant effect on their boss’ likelihood to comply. However, flattery has a powerful effect if the task asked of someone requires substantial effort (e.g. tweeting your daily activities).

Another question raised from this study is why, in the high-effort condition, solicitor flattery or respondent flattery enhanced return rate, while double flattery or no flattery depressed it? According to Hendrick et al., (1972) there is a norm concerning how much pleading the solicitor should do and the amount of sacrifice asked of the respondent. Perhaps the double flattery letters overshot the norm and the standard polite letters undershot the norm. So if you ever choose to use this persuasive tactic – make sure you maintain this balance!


Hendrick, C., Borden, R., Giesen, M., Murray, E., & Seyfried, B. (1972). Effectiveness of ingratiation tactics in a cover letter on mail questionnaire response. Psychon Sci, 26(6), 349-351. doi:10.3758/bf03328641,. (2009). The Comics Section: Dilbert: We find you fascinating. Retrieved 15 January 2015, from

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