You suspect that an acquaintance who is suddenly extra nice to you is insincere, but you can’t be completely sure. It’s true that it’s Girl Scout cookie season, and this person’s daughter is trying to raise money for her troop. You can’t quite put your finger on it, but it just feels like this person is hanging around you more than usual, dropping a few gratuitous hints about the daughter’s keen desire to earn a trip for her troop.

According to a new study by Sara Langford at California State Polytechnic University-Pomona (2017), this is all part of the process of deciding who is an "insincere ingratiator," what we would call a suck-up. If you believe that a person is using you (i.e., is inauthentic), you should react negatively and expect others would also catch on to that person's ploys.

     Susan Krauss  Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. is currently a professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The author of over 160 refereed articles and book chapters and 16 books (many in multiple editions and translations), her most recent popular work is The Search for Fulfillment.

Editor:  Saad Shaheed

The crux of the problem with ingratiation is that the person’s behavior is by definition both self-serving and insincere. Wanting something out of you, the person may do favors, put on a false front of friendship, or flatter you by making up phony compliments. All of this makes you feel uncomfortable, because there’s a slight possibility that the efforts are genuine. You want to help someone who is truly in need, but if it feels like you’re being manipulated, helping that person is the last thing you’ll want to do. 

The Cal State study examined a particular aspect of ingratiation in interpersonal relationships based on an offshoot of social psychology known as the “Ultimate Attribution Error" (UAE). If you’ve heard of the “Fundamental Attribution Error,” you know that we tend to see our own behavior as situationally influenced, and the behavior of others as caused by personality. The classic example of this is that we judge an actor who simply plays the role of someone smart as actually smart. We confuse the actor with the role; the actor, by contrast, knows that he or she is just acting a part.

In the Ultimate Attribution Error, this goes somewhat further in that your error involves judgments of good and bad. You see your own behavior as motivated by all that is good and holy, but the actions of others as motivated by less desirable intentions. The UAE also affects your perceptions of groups: You extend to the people in your group the benefits of seeing yourself in a positive light, but you see others' negative behavior as due to their dispositions.  

The Langford et al. team regard ingratiation as a possible area where the UAE can readily occur—seeing the other person as “being ingratiating because they are an inauthentic person” (p. 3). The researchers predicted that due to the UAE, we would regard ourselves as better at detecting an inauthentic ingratiator than we think others would be. In other words, we think other people are more gullible than we are. It’s not the ingratiation itself that the researchers studied, but our ability to sniff out an ingratiating person.  

Gender also plays a role in the ingratiation process—as Langford and her colleagues point out, asking for things is more consistent with the feminine than the masculine stereotype. We expect women to be more ingratiating, so we’re less harsh in judging them than we are men.  

Through a complex manipulation of ingratiation condition and gender on observers versus targets, the Cal Poly researchers examined perceptions of job applicants acting in ingratiating ways. In a script of a job interview, the ingratiating applicant made comments such as “I love your watch! Where did you get it?” and “This is the nicest office I have ever been in!” Participants rated how much they liked the applicant, whether they would hire the applicant, how “hirable” the applicant seemed, and whether the applicant seemed sincere. 

The results confirmed the UAE, in that when participants perceived the ingratiator as inauthentic, they thought that they would be more likely than other people to detect the phoniness. In other words, we see ourselves as more savvy than we see other people, when we suspect we’re being sucked-up to. However, interestingly, ingratiation didn’t help female applicants: In general, women were seen as less hirable than males, which is a story in and of itself.  

These findings suggest that although we think we’re good at detecting inauthentic ingratiators, perhaps we’re not. Knowing this, here are six ways to deal with people who are insincerely using you for their own purposes: 

1. Decide whether the ingratiator is sincere or not. The person flattering you might honestly want to commend you for something about yourself that is commendable. If you believe you have this desirable quality, don’t question the motives of someone pointing it out. 

2. Find a considerate way to let the other person know you’re in on it when you believe it to be insincere. There’s a possibility that you are truly being courted by the other person for no ulterior motive, so determine that first and then figure out the best confrontation strategy. 

3. Recognize that you can be easily taken in by the flattery of a suck-up. Apart from those occasions when the flattery is sincere, you may be more easily manipulated than you realize.  

4. Try to understand the reason for the suck-up. If the ingratiator is trying to get a job, then you might want to think about taking the flattery with a very large grain of salt. If it’s to get you to buy more of those Girl Scout cookies, the causes are slightly more altruistic. 

5. Recognize that there are times you might engage in similar behavior. Because of the UAE, we tend to assume we would never engage in some of those naughty actions we believe others are capable of committing. The next time you find yourself flattering a boss or someone you’re trying to impress, ask yourself whether you really mean it. 

6. Don’t judge the target of ingratiation too harshly. The Langford et al. study showed that we believe other people are easily lured into believing an inauthentic ingratiator. Recognize that it is easy to be drawn into the flattery trap, so if you see someone else being taken in, don’t be too hard on that person. 

Ingratiation is a common, but rarely discussed, feature of social interactions, especially when people differ in power or their ability to do things for others. Knowing when you’re being flattered for inauthentic reasons can help you make better decisions about when and why to trust the people in your life.