Evolution of the Self

On the paradoxes of personality

Praise as Manipulation: 6 Reasons to Question Compliments

Might the person flattering you have a hidden agenda?

As long as another’s praise doesn’t sound patently insincere, you’re likely to welcome it. Being richly recognized for what you do—or who you are—just feels good. It’s wonderfully confirming, as reassuring as it is validating. Most of us thrive on compliments and flattery precisely because they can buoy us up, warm our hearts, and allay old fears and self-doubts.

But praise has its dark side, too. Much more than we typically realize, it can constitute a kind of verbal bribery, offered primarily to serve the interest of the person offering it. This post will suggest six ways that praise might be disbursed with the hidden intention of winning your favor, or wrangling something out of you—something you probably wouldn’t be willing to grant otherwise.

If you’re insecure, and so require external confirmation to feel worthwhile or good about yourself, you’ll be especially susceptible to (or a “target” for) disingenuous praise with invisible strings (or a price tag) attached to it. Such praise comes at a cost. Exploitive praisers prey on those with self-esteem deficiencies and seem to have radar for detecting them, They know exactly how to raise your confidence—and reduce your uncertainty—through flattering machinations ultimately designed not for your welfare but their own.

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This is hardly to suggest that you should be suspicious (or paranoid) upon any instance of another’s positive acknowledgment. But at times it would be wise to consider whether the person praising you might not be craftily maneuvering for something in return—whether, essentially, their praise is a “set up.” Particularly if their compliments seem overblown, the chance of their having some ulterior motive to take advantage of you may be something you need to explore.

Here are six ways flatterers might, covertly, be scheming to “take you in”:

  1. If they’re insecure themselves, praisers’ calculated compliments may be their preferred way of ingratiating themselves with you—or of fitting in better with a group of which you may be an important member. They may deliberately go out of their way to support or validate your viewpoint expressly to win your favor. To solidify (or “secure”) their relationship with you, they may profess that your stance on something is identical to theirs, or that they really admire you for how astute, smart or savvy you are.

  2. If they want to get you (as it were) to the negotiating table, they may contrive to butter you up in advance, so you’ll be more inclined to agree to some bargain they wish to introduce you to—a “deal” that probably will benefit them substantially more than it will you. In shrewdly “seducing” you into feeling really special—whether it’s getting you to see yourself as substantially more intelligent, perceptive, popular, laudable, etc. than you ordinarily do—they may make you feel a certain indebtedness to them. And, without consciously realizing it, you may be more willing to make compromises with them, bend yourself to their will, or do their bidding when they suggest some “mutually beneficial arrangement."

  3. Closely related to the above, they may have some specific favor they want to request of you. So to increase the odds that you’ll comply with their wishes, they’ll “gift” you with carefully calculated praise and flattery. In fact, you may end up (by way of reciprocation) feeling compelled to agree or acquiesce to their desires. It’s unfortunately all too easy to get taken advantage of if their praise—however exploitive in intent—fulfills some deep personal need (or longing) of yours. In such cases you may remain oblivious to their compliments not being nearly as genuine or authentic as, in the moment, they innocently appear.

  4. If they’ve experienced a falling-out with you—especially involving their having behaved dishonestly or dishonorably with you—one way they might contrive to get back in your good graces is through finding things to praise you for. If they’re successful in making you feel supported or vindicated, you’re likely—or at risk for—feeling better about them. Their false praise—profuse and fulsome though it may be—can increase the probability that you’ll be willing to forgive them and renew a relationship that, for good reasons, you’d begun to distrust and may already have tried to end.

  5. If they’re shameless or unethical—enough almost to justify the label psychopathic—they might offer you “fake praise” as a way of getting you to confide in them, or share with them privileged or highly personal information. Then, when they’ve succeeded in their duplicitous efforts to prompt you to disclose sensitive data, they’ll—aggressively or passive-aggressively—use it against you. Betraying your trust, they’ll take advantage of the superior position you’ve inadvertently put them in to pursue their own self-interested agenda. In the workplace this one-upmanship might enable them to “steal” the promotion that you, not they, would otherwise have received. Or it could lead to their surreptitiously compromising, or preempting, you in a large variety of other insidious ways. Trusting their praise—that is, their seeming to respect you and hold you in high regard—makes you prey to being tricked (or tripped up) by them. Through fictitious praise, they can insinuate themselves into your confidence and then, sadly, exploit it for all it’s worth.

  6. The final reason I include here as an addendum, and in a necessarily qualified fashion, for it pertains to conditioning, or “programming,” children to act in particular ways. Planned complimenting in this context can relate as much to training a child for essentially pro-social purposes as to what I view as more flagrant—and clearly self-interested—forms of child manipulation. What I’d like to address is parents whose motives in selectively complimenting their child are blatantly egocentric. Many so-called “caregivers” praise their children not to encourage kinder, more considerate or virtuous behavior, but to reinforce conduct that simply makes them more compliant, pliable, or easier to deal with. So, if the child’s needs represent a nuisance or inconvenience for them, they may—through highly selective, manipulative praise—systematically encourage that child to refrain from sharing or asserting their thoughts, feelings, wants or needs. Indirectly, they may cause the child to feel that they’re good or worthy only when they’re focusing exclusively on the parent's needs. Rearing a child in this manner warrants being seen as psychologically abusive, for seeking to mold a child to conform to the parent's selfish desires forces the child to renounce their own quite legitimate wants and needs—unless, that is, they flat out rebel against such parental dictates, which, regrettably, has its own serious mental and emotional repercussions.

Short of becoming indiscriminately wary of others’ praise or flattery, it’s only prudent to consider whether they might have a hidden agenda in praising you. That way you can minimize the possibility that their seemingly trustworthy compliments aren’t really some sort of two-faced con.

 

Note 1: I’ve written two previous posts on manipulation, both of which ironically point out its little recognized positive aspects (see “A New Take on Manipulation” and “The Intriguing Upside of Manipulation”). To further “turn the tables” on this provocative subject, this post has focused on praise— typically viewed favorably—as it may be perceived from a less positive (that is, negatively manipulative) perspective..

Note 2: If you somehow resonated to this post, I hope you’ll consider sending its link to others. Additionally, if you’d like to review other posts I’ve done for PT, please click here.

© 2014 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., who holds doctorates in English and Psychology, is a clinical psychologist and author of Paradoxical Strategies in Psychotherapy.

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