The role of ingratiation in heightening suspicion.

Author:Potter, Paula W.


Perhaps you missed one of the most talked about news stories in the summer of 2013. If that is the case you merely did not witness how someone who was incredibly successful in the business arena was unsuccessful in staving off suspicions about her behavior. There is a common curiosity that all people share in the desire to know how to make sense of human behavior. We want to understand the behavior of our colleagues, family, neighbors and even a celebrity chef like Paula Deen. Attribution theory and correspondence bias explain how people attempt to understand another's behavior. According to attribution theory people attempt to understand why others do what they do by examining the person's dispositional tendencies and the contextual factors of the situation. A determination is made that the behavior was either the result of individual choice or caused by the situation (Heider, 1958). Although researchers first began writing about attribution theory over half a century ago, interest continues today as current literature reveals an attempt to launch this theory as an integral component of motivation (Eberly, Holley, et al 2011). Correspondence bias occurs when people attribute the target's behavior disproportionally to that person's unique disposition and pay less attention to the situational influences that may have impacted the target (Gilbert & Malone, 1995). This particular finding is so robust that it has also been labeled the fundamental attribution error (Ross, Amabile & Steinmetz, 1977).

However, an antidote to the correspondence bias is observed when suspicion of the target is present. When perceivers are suspicious of the target's behavior, they do not automatically conclude the behavior is the result of personal disposition but rather engage in cognitive labor to consider possible rival alternative explanations for the behavior. (Echebarria-Echabe, 2010, Fein & Hilton, 1994, Marchand & Vonk, 2005). This cognitive energy is expended when people are more interested in learning about the situation rather than the actor (Krull, 1993).

Of particular interest is the role that ingratiation plays in alerting people to the target's actions when suspicion is present. Ingratiation is an influence tactic where one acts in a friendly manner using tools such as flattery and compliments in order to put the perceiver of ingratiation in a good mood as well as invoking camaraderie and willingness to conform to the ingratiator's wishes. (Vonk, 1999, Yukl & Tracey, 1992). However, because perceivers already harbor suspicion about the target they are highly attentive processors of information and actions of ingratiation may only serve to increase suspicion. Suspicious perceivers engage in a sophisticated analysis of the target's behavior that departs from standard cognitive processing (Fein & Hilton, 1994).

Therefore this paper posits that while targets may attempt to influence perceivers by means of ingratiation, this strategy may be dashed. Any behavior that the target engages in while in the shadow of suspicion is critically analyzed and scrutinized. Any error made by the target is very costly in terms of perception and ultimately whether the perceivers' suspicions are confirmed or rejected. Moreover, ingratiation can sometimes be viewed as manipulative and therefore a target under suspicion should proceed with caution (Yukl & Tracey, 1992). This paper opens the door to increased understanding of the interplay of the correspondence bias, suspicion and the ingratiation influence tactic and presents a temporal model of attributional processing.


Researchers have spent decades attempting to disentangle correspondence bias in the pursuit of gaining knowledge about how people come to understand human behavior. The correspondence bias has been typically tested in experimental design using college students but recently was found to be present in a national representative sample of American adults (Bauman & Skitka, 2010). Moreover, other recent research found evidence of the correspondence bias in experiments conducted with students from Taiwan and China that established the effect exists in both individualist and collectivist cultures (Krull, et. al, 1999). Taken together, this recent research provides evidence that although we live in an age filled with technological...

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