Uncommon Knoweldge

Flattery will get you somewhere

Surprising insights from the social sciences

(Wesley Bedrosian for The Boston Globe)
By Kevin Lewis
November 15, 2009

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Insincere flattery gets a bad rap. Sure, it sounds cheesy or even awkward. But new research suggests that one’s initial conscious reaction - discounting the flattery as a self-serving ploy - may mask a more durable implicit positive emotional association with the flatterer. People who were given a printed advertisement from a department store that paid compliments to their sense of fashion had higher opinions of the store, but only when they weren’t given much time to think about it, or when they were asked several days later. This effect was boosted after people engaged in self-criticism but was nullified after people engaged in self-affirmation, suggesting that flattery - even the patently insincere type - will be especially effective on folks who are down on their luck.

Chan, E. & Sengupta, J., “Insincere Flattery Actually Works: A Dual Attitudes Perspective,” Journal of Marketing Research (forthcoming).

Handsome is as handsome throws
As if some people didn’t already have a leg up in life, a new study adds insult to injury. Pictures of the faces of NFL quarterbacks were shown to Dutch women, who rated the pictures for attractiveness (and who presumably didn’t know much about the quarterbacks themselves). The more attractive quarterbacks, it turned out, were the ones with more impressive game stats. The study echoes a different finding from earlier this year that handsome quarterbacks tend to be better paid as well, even relative to their performace. The authors of the new study theorize that testosterone or some other aspect of male reproductive fitness is influencing both athleticism and facial appearance.

Williams, K. et al., “The Face Reveals Athletic Flair: Better National Football League Quarterbacks Are Better Looking,” Personality and Individual Differences (January 2010).

Macho politics
War is supposed to be a continuation of politics by other means, but maybe it’s the other way around. Researchers at Duke University and the University of Michigan examined the testosterone levels of students around the time of the 2008 presidential election. Men who voted for John McCain exhibited significant decreases in testosterone upon learning that he lost, whereas the testosterone levels of men who supported Barack Obama were stable. This effect remained even after controlling for political values, intensity of support, alcohol consumption, and social environment. Meanwhile, despite having political feelings similar to men, women exhibited no significant difference in testosterone levels regardless of which candidate they supported. These findings are consistent with earlier research showing that male testosterone fluctuates in response to winning or losing dominance contests.

Stanton, S. et al., “Dominance, Politics, and Physiology: Voters’ Testosterone Changes on the Night of the 2008 United States Presidential Election,” PLoS ONE (October 2009).

You’re white? You’re hired.
Just when we thought we were entering a post-racial society, some recently published research - the New York City Hiring Discrimination Study - suggests otherwise. The study was run by sociologists at Princeton who recruited and trained white, black, and Latino “well-spoken, clean-cut young men” to apply for real entry-level jobs throughout New York City with fictitious, but essentially identical, resumes. The results were stark: “Blacks were only half as likely to receive a callback or job offer relative to equally qualified whites; moreover, black and Latino applicants with clean backgrounds fared no better than a white applicant just released from prison.” Even worse, the minority candidates were often channeled to positions inferior to those advertised, while the white candidates were often channeled to superior positions. Granted, this study was undertaken in 2004, before all the talk of a post-racial society; however, New York City is one of the most diverse and progressive places on earth, so if discrimination was still rampant there…

Pager, D. et al., “Discrimination in a Low-Wage Labor Market: A Field Experiment,” American Sociological Review (October 2009).

Drinking and testing
With so much high-stakes testing in school these days, any little edge can be important. An experiment by psychologists in Britain offers one simple lesson: Have a drink. They tested a group of 6- to 7-year-olds on various cognitive tasks, and then, 40 minutes later, asked half the group to leave the room, while the remaining kids were offered a drink of water. After another 45 minutes, both groups were retested. The kids who were offered a drink performed significantly better on tests of visual attention and search. It’s not exactly clear how a drink of water causes this effect for healthy kids, but it does raise the question of whether kids (and maybe adults) are optimally hydrated during the day.

Edmonds, C. & Jeffes, B., “Does Having a Drink Help You Think? 6-7 Year Old Children Show Improvements in Cognitive Performance from Baseline to Test after Having a Drink of Water,” Appetite (forthcoming).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist. He can be reached at