A Classic Study of Sycophancy

Edward E. Jones’ 1964 Ingratiation: A Social Psychological Analysis offers an excellent general theory of sycophancy. Even today, 50 years after the publication of Jones’ study, researchers still cite his work, frame experiments based upon his assumptions, and seek to replicate his claims.

Jones identifies three basic kinds of ingratiation—other enhancement (that is, the classic suck-up), opinion conformity (the yes-man), and self-presentation (the self-promoter). Through a series of experiments, Jones sets out the main concerns of future research—the relative efficacy of these different kinds of ingratiatory behavior, the effects of power on success in ingratiation, the ability of both target and sycophant to recognize the ingratiatory behavior they are involved in, the effects of ingratiation on an observer, and the risks of various strategies of ingratiation.

Ingratiation is always interpersonal: it involves at least two and often three people. An act of ingratiation “can mean one thing to the actor, another to the target of the action, and still another thing to a neutral observer.” Another variable complicates these interactions further: the sycophant himself can be unaware of his sycophancy. Jones further notes that it is difficult to ascertain the “normative base line from which ingratiation departs,” that is, what delineates the difference between an act of sucking up and simple friendliness. Jones offers two criteria, “manipulative intent and deceitful execution”, but he admits that these are only helpful if one can know them to be the case—which is precisely the difficulty. To determine bad faith, whether from the target’s perspective, in which the same behavior can be either ingratiatory or not, or the actor’s perspective, in which he might well deceive himself as to his culpability, is always tricky and often impossible.

Let’s consider the implications of these assumptions. Since sycophancy depends upon unknowable intentions and ambiguous actions, empirical research is bound to be imprecise and inconclusive. The study of ingratiation must determine both whether a behavior is ingratiatory and how conscious both target and actor are of the act as ingratiatory. We have to know what the act is, and we have to know what everyone involved thinks it is. Moreover, as sycophancy becomes more effective, it also becomes harder to pin down. Both act and intent are inscrutable because both the act and the intent are in play.

In exploring the sycophant Jones notes that people are easily induced to suck up, that they readily deceive themselves about the nature of their activity, and that a “hunger for approval” underlies both the action and the self-deception. And, of course, the target believes the flattery to be sincere as well. Sycophancy ultimately requires a willingness to deceive and be deceived on the part of both parties, as if each is “anxious to believe the [ingratiatory] better than he really is.”

Jones also notes the risks that sycophants take. Flattery from a position of equality or dominance almost always works, but the same remarks or gesture from a subordinate might simply mark him as a lickspittle. For the underling, opinion conformity is always safer, but one runs the risk of proving oneself pathetically deficient in leadership capacity. Despite the vulgar physicality of the many euphemisms for sycophancy—bootlicker, toady, flatterer, brownnoser, lickspittle, yes man—great discernment and some real daring are required before one can properly place one’s tongue on the boot.

Jones brings a broad humanism to his research. His conclusions tend to echo traditional ideas about sycophancy—in fact his work is best viewed as an inquiry into method rather than a presentation of particular findings. None of his claims have the éclat of a TED Talk—that razzle-dazzle combination of counterintuitive novelty and measured takeaway. Jones begins with curiosity—perhaps even disinterested curiosity—and, under his steady gaze, sycophancy, so familiar to us in anecdote and in story, becomes more and more strange. The more he seeks to quantify or measure sycophancy, the more elusive it becomes. As Jones himself acknowledges, literature offers some of the most illuminating portrayals of the practice. Sycophancy, like other complex behavior, has to be imagined.

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