Harvard Business Review

A Year's Worth of Research on How to Get Ahead


Posted on Harvard Business Review: December 23, 2011 10:45 AM

Researchers in the fields of business, economics, and psychology maintained their relentless pursuit of knowledge in 2011, discovering, among other things, that a joke can get you a raise and that it’s OK to mimic your customers. In my search during the past year for statistics to publish in HBR’s Daily Stat newsletter, I found a few memorable pieces of research-based advice on how to get ahead in an unforgiving world:

First, remember “A-B-D” — always be disagreeable:

People who are disagreeable earn more than people who are agreeable, and the gap is biggest among men, according to an analysis of four surveys spanning almost 20 years. Men who are significantly less agreeable than average earn 18.31% more than men who are significantly more agreeable than average, while the comparable figure for women is 5.47%, says the study, led by Beth A. Livingston of Cornell. Men’s disagreeable behavior “conforms to expectations of ‘masculine’ behavior,” the authors say.

To improve performance, get someone to wish you luck:

Activating a positive superstitious belief can boost people’s confidence, which in turn improves performance: In an experiment, a dexterity task that normally took more than 5 minutes was accomplished in just over 3 minutes, on average, if participants were wished good luck before they started it, according to research led by Lysann Damisch of the University of Cologne in Germany. Before trying to roll 36 little balls into little holes in a transparent plastic cube, the participants were told by a researcher, “I press the thumbs for you,” the German equivalent of “My fingers are crossed for you.”

To generate ideas, run electric current through your brain:

Research subjects who received electrical stimulation of the anterior temporal lobes of the brain were 3 times more likely to come up with the fresh insight needed to solve a difficult, unfamiliar problem than people in a control group, according to Richard P. Chi and Allan W. Snyder of the University of Sydney. The researchers say they envision a future when noninvasive brain stimulation is briefly employed for solving problems that have evaded traditional cognitive approaches.

To enhance your recall, try gazing at a dead cat:

People who viewed an image of a dead cat (or something equally negative) after recalling a newly learned Swahili word were better at later remembering the word than people who viewed a neutral image, say Bridgid Finn and Henry L. Roediger III of Washington University. The viewers of negative images remembered 57% of what they had previously recalled, compared with 44% for people who saw neutral pictures. An emotionally arousing event may enhance “reconsolidation” of memory because the brain’s emotional centers have close connections with the reconsolidation region, the researchers say.

Live in sin:

People who cohabit with just one person and then marry that person go on to accumulate wealth at double the rate of people who marry without cohabiting, according to a study of U.S. couples by Jonathan Vespa of The Ohio State University and Matthew A. Painter II of the University of Wyoming. About one-third of married people in the U.S. have cohabited, in most cases with just one person (relatively few people are serial cohabiters).

And postpone procreation:

Postponing motherhood leads to an increase in women’s earnings of 9% per year of delay, according to Amalia R. Miller of the University of Virginia. It also leads to an increase in wages of 3% and a rise in work hours of 6%, with the wage advantage being largest for college-educated women.

When you’re negotiating salary, try this joke:

Job candidates who jokingly requested ridiculously high salaries received 9% higher wage offers than candidates who made no such jokes, according to a simulation conducted by Todd J. Thorsteinson of the University of Idaho. In the experiment, students applied for imaginary jobs as administrative assistants, stating that their previous salary level had been $29,000; those who kiddingly said they’d like to earn $100,000 were offered an average of $35,385, compared with $32,463 for the nonjokers. In a negotiation, an initial offer — even one offered in jest — can serve as an “anchor,” affecting the eventual outcome, Thorsteinson says.

And remember, threatening works:

Across a range of industries, 74% of new hires in a recent study chose to negotiate their compensation, and they increased their starting salaries by an average of $5,000, say Michelle Marks of George Mason University and Crystal Harold of Temple University. The most effective tactics included persuasion, threats, and even misrepresentation; compromising and accommodating approaches to negotiation were not associated with any negotiated salary gains, the researchers say.

Don’t overgroom:

For women, an increase in personal grooming time is associated with lower earnings; for example, if a nonminority woman doubles her daily grooming from 45 minutes to 90 minutes, her earnings drop an average of 3.4%, say Jayoti Das and Stephen B. De Loach of Elon University. Men differ significantly by race: Grooming has no effect on nonminority men’s earnings, but for minority men, a doubling of daily grooming from 40 minutes to 80 minutes yields a nearly 4% increase in average earnings. The researchers say grooming signals social identity, and while it has adverse consequences for highly groomed women, it may counter negative stereotypes of minority men.

If you’ve earned a professional degree, avoid nonprofits:

Among Gen Y employees, professional degrees are much more common in nonprofits than in the corporate world, but they’re worth less: In comparison with a bachelor’s, a professional degree gets you about 23% more salary in a for-profit company, but just 18% more in a nonprofit, according to research by Jasmine McGinnis of Georgia State and Georgia Institute of Technology.

If you’re a waitress, become a close-talker:

Waitresses can increase their tips 22.6% by standing 0.6 meters closer to patrons (0.15 meters away versus 0.75 meters), according to Celine Jacob and Nicolas Gueguen of the University of Southern Brittany in France. The researchers say close proximity is one of four nonverbal ways for waitresses to boost tips, the others being smiling broadly, touching customers briefly on the arm or shoulder, and squatting next to the table when introducing themselves.

If you’re a sales clerk, mimic your customers:

Retail salespeople who subtly mimic customers’ speech and behavior are more successful at selling, according to an experiment led by the same Professor Jacob. Among customers who solicited salespeople for information about an MP3 player, 78.8% bought such a product from mimickers, compared with 61.8% from nonmimickers. Afterward, customers who had been mimicked were more positive about the salespeople and the store.

If you’re a woman, drink coffee:

When it comes to collaboration on stressful tasks, caffeine impairs men’s performance but boosts women’s, according to research led by Lindsay St. Claire of the University of Bristol in the UK. The researchers say their laboratory study raises the question of whether men “fight or flee” while women “tend and befriend” under stress, and whether caffeine somehow intensifies those behaviors. They also ask whether coffee at business meetings might have the effect of sabotaging collaboration. 80% of the world’s population consumes caffeine daily.

If you’re a man, pack on a few pounds:

A man in the U.S. whose weight is 25 pounds below the mean earns $210,925 less, on average, across a 25-year career than a man whose weight is at the mean, according to a study by Timothy A. Judge of the University of Florida and Daniel M. Cable of London Business School. But a woman who is 25 pounds below the mean earns $389,300 more across the same time span than an average-weight woman. Society rewards people for meeting gender-role expectations on weight, the researchers say.

Which you can do by just staying at your desk:

The 25% of people who took the most breaks from being seated during sedentary periods such as work had waist circumferences that were 4.1 centimeters smaller, on average, than the waists of the 25% who took the fewest breaks, according to research led by Genevieve Healy of the University of Queensland in Australia. The breaks were as short as a minute.

Here’s to a disagreeable, not-too-well-groomed, but well-compensated new you in the new year!

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Andrew O'Connell is an editor with the Harvard Business Review Group.

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