The problem with compliments

In general, I think giving people compliments is great, and most of us don’t do anywhere near enough of it. It’s easy to assume that other people know what their strengths are, or that they know that we like them, and think it’d be weird to tell them explicitly why we think they’re great. But most of us are less sure of these things than we tend to admit, and giving someone a piece of genuine, positive feedback can really make their day (as well as making them like you more!) This said, I think there are also risks involved in giving people positive feedback, and each of us should be careful about the kindof compliments we give other people.

Getting complimented on something can feel very rewarding, which is great – but like any reward, it’s likely to reinforce the behaviour that led to that reward. This isn’t a revolutionary idea – it’s psychology 101 – but I feel like most of us don’t think enough about how this applies to our interactions with other people. Getting complimented on any aspect of how you come across – whether it’s your hair, your sharp wit, or your writing skills – incentivises you to do the things that are likely to lead you to get more compliments on that thing – like spend more time doing your hair in the morning, constantly cracking jokes, or spend more time writing. The better the compliment makes you feel, the more motivated you’re going to be to seek more compliments like it. This can create a feedback loop: you get compliments on your hair, so you spend more time styling it, thus get more compliments on it… and before you know it, you’re spending three hours a day in front of a mirror.

I think this means that we should be very careful not to compliment people too much on traits that we don’t think are valuable in themselves, or that might encourage behaviours that aren’t actually good for that person. The classic example of this is complimenting people on their appearance. It’s always nice to hear someone thinks you look good – but the downside is that it may incentivise you to spend more time and effort on your appearance, and to care more about how people think you look than other things, which for many people can be harmful. I’m obviously not suggesting we should never tell people they look attractive, but it seems important to be aware that doing so too much (especially in the absence of compliments on other things), is likely to increase the extent to which that person’s self-esteem is tied to their appearance.

The upside of this, of course, is that complimenting people on things we think are valuable in themselves, or we think they’d really benefit from spending more time and effort on, can be beneficial – since it helps motivate people to improve in those ways.  The extent to which your positive feedback affects someone is obviously going to depend on a lot of different factors: how sensitive that person is to social feedback/pressures in general, how much they care about your feedback, and the way you give it. So the more sensitive to social approval you think someone is, and the more you think they care about your opinion, the more careful you should be about the kind of compliments you give.

It also means that we should be careful about the kinds of compliments we seek from others, and try to be aware of how positive feedback might be affecting our behaviour. Most of us don’t actively seek compliments by asking for them often, but we are often doing so in a more passive way. No matter what they say, basically everyone cares at least somewhat about what other people think or them. So even if you don’t realise it, you’re going to be motivated to act in ways you think the people around you are likely to respond positively to. It’s really useful, therefore, to notice and stop ourselves if we find ourselves seeking approval from others in ways that don’t actually fit with the kind of person we want to be – if you find yourself trying to impress someone by being loud and funny in a way that you don’t actually like, for example.

I think I’m particularly interested in this because I’m personally very sensitive to social feedback. I think this has advantages and disadvantages – it can give me a lot of motivation to improve in useful ways. But ideally, I want my behaviour to be guided by reflective thought about the kind of person I want to be, which feels much more robust and likely to track what I actually care about than being overly responsive to the feedback of others. Realistically, I’m not going to just stop caring what people think about me. But I can at least make sure I surround myself with people who value the things I also reflectively think are valuable. I can check that social pressures are pushing me in directions Iactually want to go in, and I can make sure I’m still spending at least some time evaluating myself by my own standards. Getting positive feedback from others can be great, but it can also be a bit like a drug: the more you get of it, the more you want – and seeking it might not always be good for you.