What’s the Best Way to Flatter Someone?

How much do you think I get paid? What do you think I got on the SAT? How long do you think I’ve been practicing piano? Everyday people are faced with numerous questions for which they just want to give the answer that will make the other person feel the best. The question is, how do you know what that answer is?

Most research suggests that you should guess something big because “overguessing” will show the person you think highly of them. However, it turns out overguessing is not always the best strategy. A study published in this month’s issue of Emotion finds that when recently employed college graduates hear guesses about their earnings they feel better when the guesses are low rather than high. The same outcome emerged in a follow up study that used GMAT scores instead of salaries.

The researchers propose a clever model to account for the varying preferences for overguessing and underguessing:

In situations where people either do not know the truth or care about others’ impression, overguesses suggest favorable prospects or impressions and hence make people happy. In situations where people already know the truth and care about it more than about others’ impression of it, underguesses make the truth look more attractive and hence make people happy. In both situations, people feel happy about what enhances the self, but the route to enhancement differs between these situations.

For example, if I have not yet been hired, I’ll feel better if you guess I’ll have a high salary because it raises my opinion of myself and my prospects. Similarly, if I’ve already been hired and I’m mostly concerned with people thinking I’m a bigshot, I’ll also be happiest if you guess I have a high salary. However, my preference will change when I care more about the truth than your impression of me. In this situation if you estimate I have a low salary I’ll feel better because I get satisfaction from knowing I make more money than I “should.”

So what do you say when you’re in a job interview and your future boss asks you how much annual revenue you think the company has? If you think he’s concerned with people having a good impression of the company, throwing out a high number will make him happiest. However, if you think he doesn’t care about impressions you’ll make him happiest by throwing out a low number that makes the truth (i.e. the company’s actual revenue) appear extremely attractive. Of course if he wants to see that you know about the company instead of using the interview to increase his positive affect, it’s probably best to give the correct answer.
Shen, L., Hsee, C., Zhang, J., & Dai, X. (2011). The art and science of guessing. Emotion, 11 (6), 1462-1468 DOI: 10.1037/a0022899


One Response to What’s the Best Way to Flatter Someone?

  1. Steve says:

    Still not as good as the inadvertently overheard compliment.

    Which would carry more weight?

    I write here that this was one of the best blogs that I have ever read.

    On the hand you stumbled across a completely different blog in which I referenced this one as a favorite.

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