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You Probably Don’t Compliment Other People Often Enough

Research suggests people don't realize how good compliments make others feel.

Key points

  • People underestimate how good compliments will make others feel.
  • People focus too much on phrasing the compliment in the right way.
  • Focusing on the sentiment of the compliment can make it more likely for people to give compliments.
iStock image licensed to Art Markman
Source: iStock image licensed to Art Markman

Think back to the last time you got a compliment from someone else. It probably felt good. Even a stranger telling you that you are wearing a nice outfit can be a nice thing to hear. Compliments from friends, colleagues, and loved ones can be particularly nice to hear. And — for that matter — it can feel good to compliment someone else as well.

Yet, most people don’t compliment others as often as they should. A paper by Xuan Zhao and Nicholas Epley in a 2021 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology explored why this happens.

In one set of experiments, participants were randomly assigned to either generate compliments or to receive compliments. For example, in one study, pairs of people walking together in a public park were stopped. On average, they knew each other for almost 10 years. One participant wrote out three compliments for the other person that were supposed to be nice things that they hadn’t told that person before. Then, the compliment writer predicted how nice the other person would feel receiving the compliment. They also focused on how awkward that person would feel. In addition, they rated their compliments for how warm they were (that is, how nice the sentiment was) as well as how well-phrased they were.

Then, the recipient read the compliments and rated how good they felt receiving them, how awkward they felt, and how warm and well-phrased the compliments were.

The key finding was that participants underestimated how good the compliment would make the recipient feel. (A control condition showed that people do not underestimate how other people feel in general, so it was specific to the effect of the compliment.) Participants also overestimated how awkward the recipient would feel. Participants also slightly underestimated how warm the recipients would find the compliment. Finally, participants strongly underestimated how well-phrased recipients found the compliment to be.

Participants were asked how often they compliment the person they had been walking with, and people systematically said that they give fewer compliments than they think they should.

This set of findings was replicated several times.

The upshot is that people underestimate the positive impact that a compliment will have on others. In particular, recipients focus quite a bit on the sentiment expressed and are not that concerned with the way it is phrased.

Another study demonstrated that this misestimation of the impact of compliments affects whether people choose to give them. In a final study, individuals wrote out compliments for another person in their lives. Then, participants were directed to focus either on the warmth of the compliment or on how well-phrased it was. Participants who focused on the warmth of the compliment rated themselves later as much more willing to deliver the compliment to the other person than those who focused on how well-phrased it was.

Putting these findings together, people miss a lot of opportunities to make other people feel good, because they don’t deliver the compliments they think of. A big reason why they don’t give these compliments is because they underestimate how good those compliments will make the other person feel. And a big reason why they underestimate the impact of compliments is because they focus more on executing the compliment (that is, saying it in the right way) than on how good the compliment will make other people feel.

So, if you have a chance to compliment someone else in your life, you should probably do it.

References

Zhao, X. & Epley, N. (2021). Insufficiently complimentary: Underestimating the positive impact of compliments creates a barrier to expressing them. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 121(2), 239–256.

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