Oliver James: Brown nose day

David Astor, a man of not inconsiderable sophistication who was the late proprietor and editor of this paper, once said to me: 'If I had to give a tip to someone on how to get on, I would tell them to suck up to the boss. I have to confess it nearly always worked with me.' I only wish I had heeded his wise words (alas, office politics are not my strongest suit), because the scientific evidence bears him out. In one study, 872 Americans were surveyed several years after graduation about the tactics they employed in trying to impress their bosses.

Ingratiators lavished praise on the boss and took care to be seen to agree with his or her major views even when they profoundly disagreed. Self-promoters' tactics were to talk up their own achievements or get in early to work to seem keener than their peers.

The ingratiators' salary, number of promotions and level in their organisation were higher than those of the self-promoters. The reason seems to be as simple as that bosses like them more, which causes the boss to give them higher appraisals. According to one study, US bosses don't like self-promoters. Another study of American boss/ employee relationships showed that if the boss likes you, they are more likely to give high ratings (probably regardless of actual performance; in that study, your boss was liable to like you if they perceived you as a similar sort of person to themselves and you came from a similar background).

But before you conclude 'ingratiate or die', it doesn't always work. In one study, US interviewees who brought the subject back to me, me, me and talked up their achievements did better than those who employed flattery or compliance to the interviewer's opinions, or sought pity by acting helpless. You might dismiss all this evidence because it is based on that flaky, surely very-different-to-us species, Homo americanus. Except that you would have thought that being a show-off over there would win every time. I suspect the findings apply to us, though it's advisable to go about your self-promotion over here without being too obvious about it. 'I suppose I did play a small part in the increase in sales in my department during my time there, although of course one was terribly lucky to have such a wonderful sales force' is more likely to work among Brits than, 'Hey, I was heading up sales during the greatest net-worth rise in that department in the corporation's history - and that was despite all the losers I had working for me.' Not that being either ingratiatory or a self-promoter is a great idea if you want to be happy. Other studies suggest that both types are liable to find their work less satisfying and to be more miserable than people who work because it interests them.

It was ironic that David Astor was the one to give me the ingratiation tip, since he would have been the last person to have used it. When considering a potential employee he would ask: 'Is he one of us?' If the answer was yes, he would say: 'Well, we don't want him, then.'

The mental block

Whether you have a secure or insecure (expecting rejection or abandonment) pattern of relationships is a strong predictor of most kinds of problems, from your risk of divorce to whether you suffer depression to poor performance at work. Since genes have been claimed to heavily influence these problems, they might be assumed to play a big part in your pattern of attachment.

A recent study (in Child Development) of one-year-olds compared the patterns of attachment to their mothers of 57 identical twins with those of 81 non-identical pairs. It confirmed the results of several others: genes play very little role, if any.The study also contradicted the frequent claim by geneticists that similarities between siblings are largely caused by genes rather than similar parental care. About half of the similarity in these pairs was caused by this latter.

That attachment patterns are little caused by genes is a serious thorn in the side of genetic determinists. About half of adults have an insecure pattern of attachment and nearly two-thirds of those with an unresponsive mother do. The mother's pattern of attachment before birth predicts what her offspring's will be when it is 18 months old, and subsequently, in three-quarters of people.

It is becoming increasingly certain that this transmission of patterns is through parental care, not genes. Studies of attachment are providing strong evidence that the way we are cared for in the early years has a major impact on what sort of adult we become.

· oliver.james@observer.co.uk

Thanks to guardian.co.uk who have provided this article. View the original here.