- A series of studies found evidence that people's expectations about how a stranger will feel if they give them a compliment are incorrect.
- Because people tend to misjudge how a stranger will react to a compliment, they avoid sharing complimentary words.
- In actuality, people appreciate receiving a compliment, and when they give one, it boosts their mood.
- These findings only pertain to appropriate, respectful comments given to a stranger.
Abraham Lincoln once observed that “everybody likes a compliment.” Yet, how many of us have had a kind, complimentary thought about another individual as we were going about our daily lives, but never took the time to express it directly to that person? In all likelihood, quite a few of us. And across a series of four studies, two researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and Cornell University examined why we shy away from complimenting people, specifically people we don’t know.
The researchers did this by asking study participants to approach the fourth person they saw (who they believed matched their own gender) in a particular area, and give that person a specific compliment (i.e., “I like your shirt”). In later versions of the study, they allowed participants to choose what compliment they wanted to give. The researchers also measured how the study participants felt before giving a compliment, what emotional effect participants thought their comment would have on someone, and the emotional effect it actually had (they measured this with a questionnaire that only the person who got the compliment saw). In another version of the study, they asked an additional participant, someone who would neither have to compliment anyone nor be on the receiving end of a compliment in the study, to imagine how someone would feel after getting a compliment from another person.
The results of these studies revealed that we avoid complimenting people because we misjudge how they’ll react, making light of how much a compliment can uplift someone and magnifying how troubled we expect someone to feel in response to it. The researchers also found that even after giving a compliment, the emotional effect we think we had doesn’t accurately map onto how the person we complimented feels; we continue to make the same error. And it truly is an error we’re making because, as people’s responses in the study showed, they tended to appreciate receiving a compliment. The researchers nicely illustrated this with a quote from one person who received a compliment: “Thanks for making my day more human!” But why do we underrate the positive power of our words? As the researchers also found, we’re inclined to feel nervous and doubtful about our capacity to skillfully compliment someone, which influences our inaccurate estimation of how someone will feel in response. Notably, the additional study participants who only had to guess how someone would react to a compliment without giving or receiving one were actually better judges of how the people who got compliments would feel than the actual people doing the complimenting. As the researchers pointed out, these additional participants weren’t nervous (after all, they didn’t have to compliment anyone), which left them more capable of gauging how people would feel after receiving a compliment. On top of this, there was evidence that after giving someone a compliment, it can lift our own mood.
Now does this mean that we all misjudge the effect of a compliment in this way? Not at all. The researchers noted likely exceptions, such as people who make the reverse error and inflate how affirming or enjoyable a compliment will feel for someone (e.g., someone who makes suggestive remarks to a stranger walking by or to someone in the workplace). Additional exceptions they highlighted include how culture and the familiarity of a relationship can impact whether people are more or less correct in their anticipation of a compliment's effect.
But in general, this research has a meaningful message to convey: We all have a powerful tool of human good will at our disposal, words of genuine and thoughtful appreciation that take just a few moments to give. So the next time you appreciate how kind someone was in a brief interaction or even if you just like their shoes, try putting yourself out there and enduring some discomfort to let them know. It’ll leave a more beneficial imprint than you may think, for them and for you.
Boothby, E.J., & Bohns, V.K. (2021). 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, 47, 826-840.