When I was in college, the psychology department was constantly advertising for study subjects. It was an easy way to earn a few extra dollars (which in those now long ago days actually meant something). I participated in multiple experiments (thereby funding many late-night runs for coffee and doughnuts) but there is only one that made a lasting impact.
The alleged goal of the research was to determine the most effective interviewing techniques. We, the subjects, would undergo a personal interview and then we would evaluate the skills of our interrogator. While I don't recall every question, I do remember that every answer I made was turned to positive account. If I didn't have a plan for my future, then I was open-minded and flexible. If I had some thoughts about it, I was organized and well-prepared.
The evaluation focused on how much we liked the interviewer, whether we thought we could be friends -- all interpersonal issues. I had really enjoyed the interview, she seemed to like me very much, and I wrote glowingly of the future potential for our friendship.
I was the perfect subject for this experiment and eloquently proved their thesis which was not about interviewing techniques (no surprise), but about the power of flattery.
"O that men's ears should be to counsel deaf but not to flattery!" (William Shakespeare)
Giving compliments is a powerful tool for creating and building relationships. Flattery destroys them. Praise rightfully earned helps develop the self-esteem of those we love. Insincere flattery (which may be an oxymoron since flattery is by definition insincere) makes us feel less worthwhile, makes us feel hurt and used. While we may initially be seduced by a flatterer, we are ultimately left empty; we feel soiled. It's like spending too many hours with a used car salesman (or a politician). Of all such people, King David warned, "Each one speaks untruth to his neighbor; smooth talk, with an insincere heart do they speak" (Psalms, 12:3).
The Torah prohibits flattery -- we are not allowed to manipulate our relationships in dishonest ways. If we know that someone is going out of town, we can't "pay back" a dinner invitation by inviting them over during their vacation week. It's false. It's flattery. It suggests that we would sincerely enjoy their presence when the opposite is more clearly true.
I have found personally that the charm of a flatterer begins to wear off the more time we spend together. The first few meetings I'm complimented and gratified. As time passes, the praise wears thin (I know I'm not that great!). Especially when I see it equally and liberally applied to all others.
However, as much as we need to guard against flatterers -- it's a bribe of the mind and we are all susceptible -- we need to be even more vigilant not to become flatterers ourselves.
People who are always flattering others seem to lose their core, their sense of self, their soul. A life of insincerity erodes their foundation. Flattery hurts the flatterer the most. Whatever the immediate gain, the long term loss supercedes it. And just as our own sense of self can't be built on a foundation of flattery, neither can any real relationship.
I like compliments as much as the next person. But I don't want illusions (and I know that I didn't really lose any weight!). Because of the personal and interpersonal cost, the Torah warns against a life of flattery.
I like to think that if I was the subject of a similar experiment today, I wouldn't be so easily seduced. But it may depend on what they say...