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Random Words of Kindness

New research explores the impact of giving compliments.

Everybody likes receiving compliments, whether from people we know or from strangers.

“That’s a lovely scarf!”

“I really enjoyed your presentation.”

Just a few kind words like these can make our day, boosting our mood long after the interaction is over.

And yet, people are often reluctant to give compliments. Think back on your own life. How many times have you noticed something positive about a friend or colleague and considered paying them a compliment, but then held back? If you’re like most people, you can recall plenty of times.

We all know how good receiving a compliment feels, and yet we’re often reluctant to pay someone else a compliment when we have the opportunity. What is it about our psychology that causes us to act this way? This is the question that the University of Pennsylvania psychologist Erica Boothby and her colleague Vanessa Bohns explored in a study they recently published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

In a series of five experiments, Boothby and Bohns tested a number of hypotheses that have been proposed about why people are reluctant to give compliments. One proposal is that the act of complimenting might also incite a feeling of envy, and so people refrain from complimenting others to avoid feeling bad about themselves. Another proposal is that people are afraid that the compliment will be misinterpreted as an attempt at ingratiation, thus making the other person like them even less. However, the results of the current study failed to support either of these proposals.

Instead, the researchers suspected that two other factors were at play in making people hesitant to pay compliments. One was the social anxiety that comes from approaching people we don't know well. In this view, we experience discomfort while making the compliment, and so we assume the other person feels awkward as well.

The other suspected factor is concern over competence. Especially if we don’t usually pay others compliments, we may worry that our words won’t come out right and won’t convey their intended meaning. Plenty of previous research has considered this issue in other social exchange contexts, such as making small talk or expressing gratitude. The general finding is that people on the receiving end are much more influenced by the warmth that is expressed rather than by how smoothly the words are spoken.

In the standard procedure used in this series of experiments, college students are recruited to go out on campus and pay a same-sex stranger a compliment. Before they do so, however, they first respond to a survey assessing how they feel about the prospect of approaching someone they don’t know and complimenting them. They also estimate how the receiver is going to feel about the compliment. Finally, they indicate their current mood.

After the participant approaches the target and makes the compliment, they hand an envelope to the receiver and explain that they’re a participant in a psychology experiment. The compliment receiver answers a brief survey on how the compliment made them feel. They then put the survey back in the envelope and hand it to the compliment giver, who returns it to the experimenter.

On their return to the lab, the compliment giver responds to another survey in which they once again estimate how the compliment receiver felt. They also indicate their current mood one more time.

Across these experiments, there was a consistent pattern of results. In every case, the compliment giver underestimated the positive impact on the complement receiver and overestimated the negative impact. That is, they expected the receiver to feel uncomfortable about the exchange rather than happy about it. Furthermore, the compliment givers continued to misjudge the feelings of the compliment receivers even after the event.

Generally speaking, we’re pretty good about judging other people’s moods by their facial expressions. You would expect the compliment givers to have understood that their kind words had had a powerful positive impact on the receiver’s mood. However, the researchers offer a plausible explanation, namely that we’re expected to show that we’re pleased when we receive a gift, whether a tangible object or kind words. Perhaps, then, the compliment givers discounted the receiver’s happy facial expression as merely polite rather than genuine.

In one experiment, the researchers included a third participant who acted as a neutral observer. These observers weren’t asked to actually give someone a compliment. Rather, they were asked to merely imagine that they had done so. These people were able to accurately predict the positive impact the compliment would have on the receiver. Presumably, they did this by stepping into the receiver’s shoes, so to speak, and imagining how they would feel in that situation.

Ironically, this ability to take another’s perspective disappears when we’re about to carry out the act of complimenting someone in real life. In the surveys, the compliment givers expressed that they were anxious about approaching a stranger. They also indicated concerns about how well they’d be able to express the compliment. That is to say, these responses provide support for the hypothesis that people are reluctant to give compliments because of social anxiety and fear of performing incompetently.

It also seems to be the case that the social and performance anxiety they experienced precluded them from being able to take the compliment receiver’s perspective. When we’re in heightened emotional states, our thinking becomes very self-centered. We also tend to project our moods onto others around us, simply assuming that they feel the same way we do.

Finally, the compliment givers reported a boost in mood after they had expressed their kind words to another person. This finding is in line with plenty of other research on prosocial behavior. Whether donating to a worthy cause or lending a helping hand, whether expressing gratitude or paying a compliment, acts of kindness boost the mood of both the receiver and the giver.

If you find that you have difficulty paying compliments, you should think about your reasons for feeling so. Your emotions may be telling you it’s a bad idea. But we all know there are times when we have to overcome our emotions and do what we know is right.

Go ahead and comment on your friend’s new hairstyle and praise your colleague’s speech after the meeting. You’ll make their day. But just as importantly, you’ll feel much better for having done it as well.

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Boothby, E. J. & Bohns, V. K. (2020). Why a simple act of kindness is not as simple as it seems: Underestimating the positive impact of our compliments on others. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Advance online publication. DOI: 10.1177/0146167220949003

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