The term ingratiation refers to behaviors that a person illicitly enacts to make others like him or her or think well of his or her qualities as a person. There are many ways in which people can ingratiate themselves. One that is frequently used is to show interest in another person; ask questions, pay attention, and single out the person so that you make him or her feel special. A second strategy is do favors or to help or assist a person. For instance, you can bring your colleague a cup of coffee or help an attractive stranger with car trouble. Third, you may show support and loyalty, for instance during a meeting, when you express agreement with your supervisor. A fourth way to make people like you is simply to smile and be friendly, cheerful, and positive. Fifth, you can directly express admiration by flattering people and telling them what you like or admire about them. There are many other ways to make people like you; the bottom line is that any behavior that potentially has the effect of enhancing your likeability and is enacted for this reason can be seen as an instance of ingratiation.

IngratiationThis does not mean that all likeable behaviors are examples of ingratiation; the crucial point is what the motive for the behavior is. For instance, if you support your boss in a meeting because you really agree with him or her, or if you help someone for totally altruistic reasons, the behavior is not ingratiating. Of course, the boundary is quite fuzzy here, because people are not always aware of their true motives. You may consciously think that you really agree or that you are really being altruistic, whereas unconsciously you may want to ingratiate yourself. Many instances of ingratiation are unconscious, so ingratiation happens a lot more than one might think.

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On the part of the target—the person being ingratiated—too, ingratiation is not always recognized as such. Whereas observers tend to quickly notice when ingratiation occurs (especially when a person behaves more favorably toward people he or she depends on than toward others), targets of ingratiation are less suspicious. Thus, the behavior is generally quite effective precisely with respect to the person for whom it is intended, the target. So, when you flatter a teacher or go out of your way to assist him or her, your fellow students who see this may immediately suspect your motives, but the teacher may simply appreciate your help or your excellent judgment of character and like you as a result.

One of the causes of this difference between observers and targets is that most people aim to have a positive view of themselves (the self-enhancement motive), and when they are ingratiated, this bolsters their self-esteem. This makes them feel good, even if they might not entirely trust the ingratiator’s motives. Importantly, there is a difference between cognitive and affective responses to ingratiation. Cognitively, you may suspect someone’s motives, especially if the person flatters you on qualities that you really do not have in your own view. Affectively, however, it feels good when someone is interested in you, likes you, supports you, and compliments you. Many people say that they do not care for this, but unconsciously all people like to feel good about themselves, and they feel good most of all when they feel valued by others.

As a consequence, the effects of ingratiation are generally as intended: The target likes the ingratiator and is more willing to do favors for the ingratiator. Thus, ingratiation can be a way to influence people. For instance, people buy more from someone who flatters them. So if you are fitting a shirt and the sales person compliments you on your figure and your excellent taste in clothes, you are more likely to buy the shirt, and maybe a whole lot more! In part, this happens because people like the person who ingratiates them. Also, being ingratiated enhances their mood, which in turn may affect their behavior in desired ways (e.g., spending more money, thinking “what the heck”). Another reason why ingratiation works is the reciprocity principle: If someone does something good for you, you want to do something in return.

A strong motive for ingratiation, then, is simply that a person can affect others’ behavior with it. But there are other motives as well. For one thing, ingratiation is the lubricating oil of social traffic. If a waiter asks you how your meal was, or if a colleague inquires what you think of her new hairdo, you will probably say something nice even if you don’t entirely mean it. Saying exactly what you think can make people feel awkward and uncomfortable. A related motive for ingratiation is that, if a person gets along well with people, they will like the person and respond favorably to him or her, which in turn is good for the person’s self-esteem. In effect, then, ingratiation can be seen as a social skill.

As noted, targets of ingratiation typically like the ingratiator, and this happens even if the flattery is quite extreme. However, observers are in a different position, and they give quite harsh judgments of ingratiators. The strongest cue for detecting ingratiation is dependence: When a person is likeable toward someone with higher status or power, observers instantly become suspicious of the person’s motives. At this point, their judgments are not yet quite negative because they cannot be certain: For all they know, the person might simply be very likeable. But once they notice that a person behaves less friendly toward those with less power, they immediately identify the person as a brownnoser and judge the person very negatively. In fact, a person who is likeable toward superiors and dislikable toward subordinates is judged just as negatively as someone who is dislikeable toward everybody. This effect is called the Slime effect because it was first reported in the Netherlands, where people are more wary of ingratiation than in the United States and where the common word for ingratiation is slime. Because likeable behavior toward more powerful people can easily be caused by ulterior motives, it is seen as utterly uninformative, so it does not carry any weight in impression formation. Of course, in everyday life, people with powerful positions typically do not see how their subordinates behave toward others, so the slimy subordinate may easily get away with it. Leaders in organizations usually have multiple subordinates whom they must pay attention to, so they can-not be expected to keep track of how everybody behaves toward everyone else. Also, they typically have high self-esteem, so when they are flattered excessively, this will simply confirm what they already know, and they are not likely to question the ingratiator’s motives. Moreover, people generally attach more weight to how a person behaves toward them than toward others (hedonic relevance); this is another reason why flattery toward powerful people will usually have the intended effect. As a result of all this, powerful people rarely get to hear the truth and may end up with a rather inflated and unrealistically favorable image of themselves.

Power and status are cues that can alert observers to the true motives of an ingratiator, but so can other cues related to dependence. For instance, a man helping a beautiful woman fix a flat tire may be suspected of ulterior motives. This situation, too, reflects a form of dependence. In dating settings, ingratiation is typically used to make people interested. It is in fact a much better idea to use ingratiation than other kinds of self-presentational strategies, such as self-promotion (showing people how capable and successful you are). The difference is that self-promotion is about oneself, whereas ingratiation is about the other person. The latter strategy is much more likely to get people interested in you, especially in settings in which it is important to be liked rather than admired. You can be exposed as an ingratiator if you use the same lines with different people. If a person discovers that you say the exact same nice things to someone else, that would be a sure way to instantly lose the credit you gained with the flattery.

The examples used here are prototypical instances of ingratiation, where the ingratiator is not sincere (e.g., buttering up the boss). It is important to realize that, in everyday life, there is a large fuzzy area between not saying exactly what you think (as in the example with the waiter or the bad hairdo, or when someone is telling you a story that is boring you to death) and blatantly deceiving people to accomplish your goals (as in the con man who pretends to be in love with the rich widow). If you think that the world would be a better place if people were totally honest with each other, think again—and try to practice this for a while! You will quickly realize the value of ingratiation in everyday social interaction. Most people do not know the truth as to what others really think of them, and they may actually be a lot less happier if they did.


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