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The Perils of Public Praise

How well-intentioned flattery can foster upward social comparison.

Key points

  • Flattery is analyzed situationally, depending on the setting.
  • Sincere praise may be viewed positively, but instinctive comparison with the target can create envy.
  • Negative reactions to the subject of flattery may translate to the flatterer.

Many of us grew up with the "Brady Bunch" sitcom sibling rivalry, notably Jan’s frustration with her older sister getting all of the attention: “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!” Jan’s feelings represent a timeless sentiment created through upward social comparison, creating negativity that may be directed at more than the object of one’s envy. Research explains.

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay
Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

How Compliments Can Create Social Comparison

As I described in a previous article, [i] people value praise differently, depending on the flatterer. Flattery can also be analyzed situationally, as it includes complimenting others on their physical appearance, attire, disposition, accomplishments, and much more.

Yet it turns out that not only can praise prompt target envy due to upward comparison, but it can also create dislike for the person delivering the praise. Elaine Chan and Jaideep Sengupta (2013) investigated the impact of flattery on observers, analyzing reactions to witnessing others receiving compliments that appear to be sincere. [ii]

They found that while perceived sincere flattery may be viewed positively, the instinctive comparison of oneself with the target can create an adverse reaction. They explain that when someone witnesses another individual receiving a compliment in an area that they consider personally relevant, it is likely to prompt an upward social comparison—which can create envy, defined as “an emotion that occurs when a person lacks another’s superior quality, achievement, or possession that either desires it or wishes that the other lacked it.” They found that this adverse reaction is not limited to the target of the envy, but also transfers to the flatterer for making the comparison that created the negative feeling.

Chan and Sengupta liken this finding to the “kill-the-messenger” effect, holding that people experience discomfort when presented with a message that contradicts their personal views. This resentment is present even when people view the messenger as objectively relaying information. They explain that this negative evaluation of the speaker, actually attributable to the content, explains why we dislike those who flatterer others in an area that generates envy.

Does it make a difference if the flattery is perceived as justified? Chan and Sengupta note that although prior research indicates observers react positively to sincere flatterers, this positive attitude coexists with perceiver negativity when they are personally, adversely impacted by the compliment due to social comparison.

Appropriate Authenticity

Public praise remains a large part of many public events. But unless you are bestowing a trophy at an awards ceremony or crowning a contestant at a beauty contest, public praise directed towards an individual in the presence of onlookers within a competitive environment should be socially strategized. As with many other issues of interpersonal communication, discretion is advised. In the same way that we consider relational dynamics when bestowing personal compliments, public praise can be similarly analyzed and delivered in a manner that is truthful and tactful.



[ii] Chan, Elaine, and Jaideep Sengupta. 2013. “Observing Flattery: A Social Comparison Perspective.” Journal of Consumer Research 40 (4): 740–58. doi:10.1086/672357.

More from Wendy L. Patrick, J.D., Ph.D.
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