New Year's Gift

Compliments make us nervous, but new research shows that praising others has significant benefits for both parties.

“The happy phrasing of a compliment is one of the rarest of human gifts,” writer Mark Twain once said, “and the happy delivery of it another.”

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Twain was recalling a meeting with Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany, who had praised his books. But we can all relate to the sentiment: receiving genuine and well-expressed praise can feel as good as a windfall.

Unfortunately, our fears about how others will perceive our words can keep us from complimenting ourselves. After all, no one wants to come across as clumsy, patronising, or fawning.

“Compliments are the simplest way to make other people – and thus ourselves – feel better,” says Nicholas Epley, a behavioural science professor at the University of Chicago. “However, when a kind thought comes to mind, people frequently do not express it.”

Three new studies on the psychology of compliment giving and receiving, however, suggest that our concerns about how our praise will be received are unfounded. And by letting go of the awkwardness, we can all enjoy better relationships with our friends, family, and coworkers.

The rule of reciprocity

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Only recently have psychologists paid close attention to our compliments, with the majority of early research focusing on their persuasive potential.

Naomi Grant, an associate professor of psychology at Mount Royal University in Calgary, invited participants to take part in a study of “impression formation” in 2010. While the participants completed a rather dull questionnaire, an actor posing as an introductory psychology student struck up a conversation in which he casually complimented the participant’s clothing. After a bit more idle conversation, the actor mentioned that they were handing out flyers about a university careers event and asked the participant if they wanted to take a handful to pass around.

The more people believe that one good turn deserves another, the more likely they are to follow a compliment with a helpful deed

The flattery had a dramatic effect, with 79% of participants offering to help with event publicity, compared to 46% of participants in a control group who had not received the compliment.

According to Grant’s most recent research, this stems from a sense of reciprocity. In general, people are more likely to follow a compliment with a helpful deed if they believe that one good turn deserves another. We often say in English that we are “paying” someone a compliment, and Grant’s research suggests that we do consider it to be part of a transaction.

Positive feedback can be a powerful tool in the workplace because of this sense of reciprocity.

Neglected benefits

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Unfortunately, according to Bohns’ own research, we rarely recognise the power of our words.

Bohns asked participants to go to an assigned location on campus and deliver a small compliment to a random stranger while working with Erica Boothby at the University of Pennsylvania. (To avoid any misunderstandings about their motivations, participants were instructed to approach someone of the same gender.) To test their assumptions, participants had to estimate how pleased, flattered, or awkward the person would feel if they received the compliment. They then gave the recipient of their compliment a sealed envelope containing a short survey asking how the stranger actually felt about the exchange after they delivered the comment.

The researchers discovered that the participants significantly under-performed in numerous experiments. estimated how happy the other person would be to hear the compliment, and significantly overestimated how cringe-worthy the encounter would be. “They were afraid that this interaction would be awkward and that they would be clumsy in their delivery,” Bohns says. But the real conversation was far more pleasant.

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Epley has been investigating similar ideas with Xuan Zhao, a Stanford University psychologist, but instead of focusing on exchanges between strangers, they asked their participants to compliment someone they already knew. Epley and Zhao discovered, like Bohns and Boothby, that participants’ predictions of the conversation were consistently pessimistic. They expected their acquaintance to be less pleased and feel more awkward than they did when they received the compliment.

Further investigation revealed that these fears appeared to stem from the participants’ perceptions of their own social “competence”; they were concerned that they would not articulate the compliment correctly, without striking the wrong tone. “It turns out the recipient doesn’t give a fart about it,” Epley says. “They are only concerned with how nice or kind the compliment is.” (The study will be published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.)

“It’s about making the other person feel seen,” Zhao says.

Compliment calendars

There is, of course, the danger that you might overdo it. If you compliment a friend, partner or colleague excessively, they might become bored of your praise or even start to find it a bit cloying.

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