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'