World Compliment Day: The Science Behind Praise

World Compliment Day: The Science Behind Praise

When was the last time someone gave you a compliment? Do you recall how it made you feel appreciated and recognized? In celebration of World Compliment Day, let’s explore the science behind why compliments feel so good and why we should give more of them.

Why compliments feel so good: they light up your brain in the right places
Ever overheard someone saying compliments are a gift? Well, it turns out that may not be far off the mark. A few years ago, in a study where participants’ brains were scanned using MRI, researchers discovered that receiving compliments led to similar activation in reward areas of the brain, such as the striatum, as receiving monetary gifts. This suggests not only that social and monetary rewards are processed in a similar manner, but also that social rewards can feel just as good as monetary rewards. This may explain why people sometimes forego monetary benefits to help other people: the warm glow you get from helping that poor refugee child may make you feel so good that you’re happy to sacrifice a few euros.

The power of praise
We now know that compliments make people feel good. For some people, that may be enough encouragement to shower their co-workers and friends with praise. But for those of you who need more convincing: giving compliments has even more advantages!

First of all, research has shown that receiving compliments can improve performance and may help us learn. More specifically, a study from 2012 suggests that when we try out a new skill - such as dancing, running, or playing the clarinet -, receiving praise helps our brain remember and repeat the skill. In the study, 48 adults were taught a certain finger-tapping task. One third of participants received praise for their own performance, one third received praise for another participant’s performance, and the others received no praise. The next day, the group that received praise for their own performance performed better on the task than the others. Praise activates the striatum, one of the reward areas in the brain. Researchers believe that, by activating this area, praise improves learning that occurs during sleep, a process referred to as ‘skill consolidation’. In other words: by giving others compliments, we help them to learn and to perform better. Take note, all you people in managerial positions!

However, helping others learn is not the only advantage of giving compliments. As you may have noticed if you work in a team, compliments can help create a better social or work environment. And yet another benefit of praise is that it can affirm desired behaviours, which can be useful not only in working environments, but also in raising children or maintaining stable friendships or romantic relationships.

Time to give more compliments!
In conclusion, compliments feel good because they activate reward areas in the brain, such as the striatum. However, giving people compliments not only makes them feel good, it also helps them to learn and acquire new skills. And as if that weren’t enough, you can also use compliments to improve the ambiance or to reinforce desired behaviour in others. To conclude, I would like to compliment you on reaching the end of this blog. And in celebration of World Compliment Day I urge you to spread the praise!

Read a Dutch version of this blog on EOS Wetenschap: 'De wetenschap achter waardering'


Suzanne van de Groep

Dear Rosa,

Thank you for your comments and your critical notes. I agree with you that it is important to acknowledge that there are more sides to praise, and that it is important to explore these nuances. I also agree with you that compliments are most valuable when given in an honest way, and that the motivation behind praise can affect the effect it has on people. I think most of us would agree that it is not desirable to decrease self-esteem and increase narcissism in children by giving to many compliments that might not even be true.

However, my goal with this blog was to make people understand why praise feels good and what possible benefits of praise are, and especially to also make them reflect on their own behavior. For example, I worked as a manager for several years and many of my colleagues and subordinates told me that praise - when accurately timed and honest - compliments really helped them to stay motivated, to reflect on their work performance, and to create a positive work environment, and that they viewed a lack of praise as undesirable. So, I agree with you that there are some conditions which determine whether praise will have a positive effect for the receiver, but I also believe that in cases where these conditions (i.e., accurate timing and honesty) are met, praise can have predominantly positive outcomes and should therefore not be discouraged by default.

Perhaps praise could be addictive to some people, and as such it could in some cases shift attention to social approval instead of other important things, such as solving problems or learning from your own mistakes. However, I think that this does not always have to be the case, especially if the praise-giver is able to balance honest compliments with constructive feedback. In that case the praise-giver can create both a positive environment and make the other person feel better, as well as provide opportunities to solve problems and to help someone else learn.

I also believe that the sender of not praise does not always have to be the one with most power. Perhaps it could also be true that collaboration becomes more equal if the person in a position of power - for example a manager - is open to feedback from their colleagues or subordinates, either positive or constructive. Possibly, it would be an interesting venture for future research to find out whether praise reinforces a power imbalance or not, and whether individual differences play a role in this.

Concluding, I agree with you that honest, positive communication is what we should aim for, but I believe that praise can under the right circumstances be an appropriate manner to positively communicate with others.

Rosa Meuwese

Although I do understand that it feels good to give someone the gift of praise, and that it feels amazing to receive praise, it does not just come with rainbows and unicorns:
- Be careful, because inflated praise can decrease self-esteem and increase narcissism in children
- Could it be addictive? And what happens to our self-esteem when we are weaned from a flow of praise?
- Praise is reinforcing a power imbalance from sender to recipient and therefore standing in the way of both autonomy and social relatedness
- Because it has such a strong pull, receiving praise, anticipating to it or anticipating to not receiving praise can shift attention towards social approval, away from the problem that needs to be solved
- When giving praise for the sake of it, it can be perceived as dishonest and even manipulative (to get you to jump through hoops)

I would rather make a case for honest, positive communication. It is possible to communicate positive regard without praise!