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The Psychology of Compliments: A Nice Word Goes a Long Way

Research explores what motivates people to compliment others.

Key points

  • Research shows that compliments often make the receivers feel better than most people anticipate.
  • Compliments also improve the mood of the compliment giver.
  • People may want to explore becoming more generous in complimenting others.

Imagine that you’re sitting in a coffee shop enjoying your drink and reading the paper when someone taps you on the shoulder. “Your jacket is beautiful,” the stranger says. “The color really complements your eyes.”

You say thank you and return to reading. The whole exchange lasts less than 30 seconds, but it leaves you feeling uplifted.

A new field of research is delving into the positive effects of compliments and what motivates people to give them. The latest paper on this topic was published earlier this year in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Two researchers, including Cornell social psychologist Vanessa Bohns, conducted a series of studies to better understand how individuals felt before and after giving or receiving compliments.

In their first study, the researchers recruited people on a college campus to go to specified locations and give a compliment to the fourth person of the same gender they encountered. Before heading out, the participants answered some questions about how they felt about giving compliments. Once out on campus, they gave a brief compliment about the person’s clothing, such as “I like your shirt.” After giving the compliment, the participant handed the compliment-receiver a sealed envelope with a survey inside and waited for them to fill it out and reseal the envelope. The compliment receiver then returned to the lab with the survey.

The surveys showed that compliment-givers underestimated how good their compliments would make people feel. In other words, people who received the compliments felt happier, more pleased and flattered than the compliment-giver predicted.

In a second study, compliment-givers were free to offer compliments on anything they genuinely liked; this time, they still underestimated the receivers reaction to the compliment. And even after they witnessed a positive reaction, they still underestimated how good the receiver felt.

In a third study, the researchers asked the question, do people avoid giving compliments to strangers because they worry about making them feel awkward or uncomfortable? This time, they asked compliment-givers to predict whether the receivers would have negative feelings about receiving a compliment. They found compliment-givers “drastically overestimated how bothered, uncomfortable, and annoyed” the receiver would feel, and this likely prevents people from giving more compliments.

The researchers also wondered if anxiety about talking with a stranger discouraged people from giving compliments. In a fourth study, they recruited participants they called “third-party forecasters,” who would try to predict how the compliment receivers would feel. This time around, they found compliment-givers felt anxious before giving their compliments, and those with higher levels of anxiety were more likely to expect the receiver to react negatively to their compliment. Compliment-givers also worried about their ability to effectively give a compliment.

The “third-party forecasters” did not report feeling anxious before the compliment was delivered (they didn’t have to approach and talk to a stranger) and were more likely to expect the compliment-receiver to feel flattered and happy about receiving the compliment. The conclusion: Anxiety about talking to a stranger and worry about not effectively delivering a compliment likely discourages people from delivering compliments to strangers.

A side note: The researchers also found that compliment-givers were in a better mood after delivering a compliment, and reported they would be more likely to give a compliment to a stranger in the future.

“Many of us have moments where we notice and appreciate something about another person—perhaps we like what they are wearing, or we were really impressed by their presentation—but we keep our appreciation to ourselves, rather than sharing it,” Bohn said. “This research offers an explanation for why: In the moment, we tend to forget how good a simple, even awkwardly delivered, compliment will make another person feel.”

The take-home message: Why not be generous in doling out compliments? Not only do compliments make the recipients feel good, but they will make you feel good as well!

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