Day after day of hard work, toiling away for long hours in your uncomfortable cubicle under cold fluorescent lights, and still the boss pays no attention -- not even as much as a "thank you." Meanwhile, the incompetent suck-up he just hired has already won the corner office. The boss loves him even though it seems his only talent is his ability to compliment and fawn over the higher-ups. Is it just our imaginations, or do bosses really reward brownnosers?
Flattery is powerful. People use it to ingratiate themselves with others for personal gain. Although most of us like to think of ourselves as having too much self-respect and dignity to ever use it, most people do at some point. We often encounter situations where we could suck up to someone -- a romantic interest, a curmudgeonly professor, potential parents-in-law or an IRS auditor. If they have the power to give us what we want or to make our lives hell, chances are we'll look for ways to get on their good side.
It's hard to draw the line where flattery becomes unethical. Most people agree that it's best to show respect to one's boss and avoid insulting him. But is it wrong to actively look for ways to compliment him? Maybe it's unethical whenever we have any selfish motivations at heart. If that's the case, is it selfish for a job applicant to profusely thank a potential employer for the opportunity of an interview when he really means it and also thinks it could help him get the job? Perhaps it's unethical only when we don't really mean it.
Ethical or not, brownnosing works -- at least sometimes. Psychological studies have looked into this flattery phenomenon to see just how effective it is and why. We'll take a look at some of these studies next.