When Does Ingratiating Yourself Work?

Psychologists call it ingratiation. Most people call it trying to make people like you or, in certain contexts, brown-nosing. When it works, you increase the supply of good will people have for you. When it doesn’t, you just end up looking like a phony.

So when does it work? To answer that question, a psychologist at University of Cologne in Germany ran a study involving 272 college students. The students were asked to describe a time that either they tried to ingratiate themselves or they experienced other people trying to ingratiate themselves to them.

Unsurprisingly, everyone had a story to tell, confirming that ingratiation is a basic part of our everyday social interactions. And 271 of the 272 participants described attempts at ingratiation that involved one of four basic techniques:

  • Paying someone a compliment
  • Doing someone a favor
  • Agreeing with people’s opinions
  • Trying to present yourself in a positive way

The students were also asked to reflect on how successful the ingratiation attempt was. In the accounts written by people who were on the receiving end of the ingratiation, four themes emerged. Specifically, ingratiation attempts were reported as being more successful when:

  • The people trying to ingratiate themselves weren’t dependent on the people they were ingratiating themselves to (in other words, they weren’t clearly ingratiating themselves to people with power over them)
  • The people being ingratiated to perceived the people ingratiating themselves as just being friendly, not as trying to be attractive
  • The people doing the ingratiating gave compliments that were perceived as sincere
  • The people ingratiating themselves used the technique of trying to present themselves well rather than the other three techniques described above

The researchers found a couple other interesting patterns. First, among people who described trying to ingratiate themselves, women reported being more successful than men. And second, people who described doing the ingratiating rather than being ingratiated to were more likely to describe successful ingratiation attempts.

One thing to notice about the findings is that ingratiation attempts that involved giving fake compliments or obviously brown-nosing to people in positions of power were more likely to backfire. When it comes to getting people to like you, the ultimate trick may be the one that’s not a trick at all – sincerity.

Image: Flickr/marcos ojeda