Motivation and emotion/Book/2018/Compliments, emotion, and motivation

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Compliments, emotion, and motivation:
What is the effect of giving and receiving compliments on emotion and motivation?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Have you ever been in a situation where you felt exhausted because of a tiring day at work, then someone praised you for your hard work and it energised you, filling you with enthusiasm to continue to work with a higher level of motivation?  Compliments can play an import role in affecting an individual’s motivation and emotions. Acknowledging and appreciating someone's hard work, dedication or even appearance has been found to create a positive bonding between the person giving the compliments and the person receiving them. Compliments when made authentically, have been identified to be shifting the internal states towards positivity (Castro, 2013).

This chapter provides information about compliments and how giving and receiving compliments impacts emotion and motivation. Emotion refers to short-lasting affective states, which are complex, involving physiology, cognition, behaviour and social communications, as well as feelings (need a reference to make it factual). However, the study of motivation is concerned with understanding psychological processes that drive and direct behaviour (need a reference to make it factual). Psychologists study motivational forces to help understand and explain patterns and changes in individual human behaviour. Motivational concepts serve several functions, including:

Figure 1. Motivation.
  1. Helping to explain pathways between biology and behaviour
  2. Accounting for behavioural variability
  3. Making inferences about private states from public acts
  4. Assigning responsibility for actions, and
  5. Explaining perseverance despite adversity.

This book-chapter also includes theoretical and research based information explaining emotion and motivation in contrast to compliments.

Focus questions

  • What are compliments?
  • How does giving and receiving compliments impact emotion and motivation?
  • What are the theoretical basis of the ways compliments impact the emotions and motivation?
  • Discuss some research findings to analyse the effect of compliments on emotions and motivation.

What are compliments?[edit | edit source]

Compliments are ways of expressing admiration for someone, which may include praising someone for a range of things, such as clothes, looks, possessions, intellectual abilities, physical abilities, intellectual achievements, physical achievements and language competence etc. (ECSTRA/Compliments)

Figure 2. Compliments reflective image.

People have got their own ways to react to the compliments:

  • Pure thanking ("Thank you"),
  • Agreeing ("Yes, I also think it's good"),
  • (Thanking and) expressing gladness ("I'm glad you like it), thanking and returning the compliment ("You look nice, too"),
  • (Thanking and) offering (materialistic) object of compliment ("You can borrow it if you like"),
  • (Thanking and) encouraging ("I'm sure you can achieve this as well"),
  • (Thanking and) explaining ("My mom gave it to me"),
  • (Thanking and) doubting ("You really think so?"),
  • Rejecting and denigrating ("Oh no, that's nothing"),
  • Thanking and denigrating ("Thank you, but that's nothing"),
  • Expressing embarrassment ("Oh no, you embarrass me"). (ECSTRA/Compliments)

How do compliments influence motivation and emotion?[edit | edit source]

Figure 3. Four emotions.

Compliments are well-known to have a positive effect on psychological states of individuals. In order to understand the impact of compliments on motivation and emotions, this section brings together theory and research generated from psychological perspectives.

Theory of Self-efficacy[edit | edit source]

Figure 4. Self-Efficacy

A range of mechanisms associated with theory for the positive effects of compliments have been identified. One of these includes being the potential mediating variable of self-efficacy (Henderlong & Lepper, 2002). Self-efficacy is linked to a person’s beliefs about his or her capabilities in order to achieve specific goals. It is linked to adaptive coping behaviour, effort expenditure, and success (Henderlong & Lepper, 2002). Although self-efficacy is most effective when it is associated with own accomplishments, compliments can be used verbally to make others believe that they are capable of succeeding in a particular task (Henderlong & Lepper, 2002). This may boost perceptions of self-efficacy (Henderlong & Lepper, 2002).

A research study supported the idea that praise had a positive impact for better achievement in fourth grade children through modifying children’s trait beliefs (e.g., believing that intelligence is fixed vs. malleable), rather than through their learning goals (e.g., preference for easy vs. challenging tasks) (Gunderson, Sorhagen et al. 2018). Praise was found to enhance children's beliefs about their capabilities, hence resulting in better task performance (Gunderson, Sorhagen et al. 2018).

Cognitive Evaluation Theory[edit | edit source]

Cognitive Evaluation Theory is based on competence and autonomy as fundamental psychological needs (Henderlong & Lepper, 2002). Fulfillment of these needs result in intrinsic motivation (Henderlong & Lepper, 2002). This theory states that intrinsic motivation is increased to the extent that environmental factors and events, including compliments, enhance higher level of perceived competence, which in turn facilitate the belief that people are given an ownership of their behaviors and outcomes (Henderlong & Lepper, 2002). It can be related to how compliments enhance children’s perceptions of competence that impact intrinsically motivated states (Henderlong & Lepper, 2002).

Individuals vary in their level of ability. In order to identify the effect of praise on people of various levels of intellectual abilities, a study was conducted which involved a teacher admiring his or her students with the same level of praise (Andrews & Kozma, 1990). Interestingly, students with a high level of academic performance were found to be impervious to praise. These students focused more on doing their best on task performance, rather then on feedback. They were found to be more self-determined (Andrews & Kozma, 1990). Students with a lower achievement level were impacted well with the praise and positive feedback they received for their task performance (Andrews & Kozma, 1990). This study helped in identifying the relationship between compliments and individual differences, signifying the power of compliments for enhancing competence and intrinsic motivation among the students on average or lower level of abilities.

Theory of Operant Conditioning[edit | edit source]

Figure 5. Operant conditioning

Operant principles support the positive effect of praise on the motivated behaviours. Praise is considered as an enhancing factor for motivated behaviours because of a pleasurable feeling of associating a task with positive feedback and compliments (Henderlong & Lepper, 2002). In a research study, praise has been identified as having a potentially positive impact on children's independent maintenance of success in academics (Farchione et al., 2017). Though reasoning has been found be more effective for a long term maintenance of academic behaviours among second grade children (Farchione et al., 2017)[Rewrite to improve clarity]. Findings of this study conducted in 2017 relate well with the power of complimenting the praiseworthy behaviours. This study recommended further investigation in multiple trials (Farchione et al., 2017). These findings link well with the principles of operant conditioning as they support the idea of positive reinforcement by praising children for better academic performance.

Attribution Theory[edit | edit source]

Human nature includes a motivation towards assigning causes and reasons for their behaviours and actions. The process by which people provide explanations for their behaviours or other events happening around them is referred to as attribution in Social Psychology. Bernard Weiner proposed a three-dimensional model for achievement attribution, which included stable theory (stable and unstable), locus of control (internal and external), controllability (controllable or uncontrollable) as the three categories. Here, stability associates with people’s expectancy towards future, causality impacts emotional responses of people and control relates with persistent approach.

Praise has always been recommended as an effective way of assisting children with low self-esteem by most of the child-rearing experts (Brummelman et al., 2014). In order to understand if children with low self-esteem should be admired for who they are as a person or for the way they behave in social situations, a study was conducted to explore the backfiring effects of certain forms of praise (Brummelman et al., 2014). Person praise was found to be a contributory factor for self-perpetuating downward spiral of self-derogation (Brummelman et al., 2014). Person praise was found to be inadvertently making children with low self-esteem feel a decreased sense of worth, however, process praise was suggested as a strong factor for increasing academic success behaviours and better overall sense of self-worth (Brummelman et al., 2014). This study had its own drawbacks, as it included participants from western culture only (Brummelman et al., 2014). There is a need to conduct the similar research on non-western cultures to study the cross-cultural implications (Brummelman et al., 2014).

Case study

Behavioral Activation Strategies for Major Depression (Farchione, Boswell, & Wilner, 2017)[edit | edit source]

Compliments help in positive reinforcement of the praiseworthy behaviours. A study conducted on a depression patient “Gina” who was a 21-year-old, single, Caucasian female. resulted in interesting findings (Farchione, Boswell, & Wilner, 2017). This case study found reduced depressive behaviours as a result of increased positive reinforcement of non-depressive behaviours (Farchione, Boswell, & Wilner, 2017). These findings associate well with the significance of positive reinforcement as per the operant conditioning principles. This positive reinforcement can be implemented using compliments and positive feedback. This study included a depression patient as the participant. In order to understand the applications and affect of praise or compliments for other psychological disorders, further studies on a range of behaviours is recommended. Also, sample size should be large, probably experiment-based research for generalising the findings to a range of individuals. This area of study focusing on compliments and their effect on psychiatric disorders, if well researched, can potentially have significant implications for Psychopathology.

Research findings and their theoretical implications[edit | edit source]

Figure 6.Research Findings

[Provide more detail]

Compliments as a strengthening factor[edit | edit source]

  • Increasing the positive peer reporting on peer acceptance and cooperative attitudes of delinquent youths who were otherwise socially rejected resulted in increased social acceptance and positive behaviours (Jones, Young, & Friman, 2000). These findings explain the influential impact of praise from the social circle of individuals. Hence, there is no doubt that praise can play a significant role for improved social interactions. Though this investigation had some limitations too. Participants in this study knew about their participation and the presence of observer during the study could potentially lead to biased responses and behaviours of the participants. Reliability of the observations is questionable.
  • Positive regard is considered to be highly valuable across the major forms of psychotherapy (Farber & Doolin, 2011). A meta-analytical study indicated that there is a moderate relationship between a psychotherapist's ability to provide positive regard in any form and therapeutic success (Farber & Doolin, 2011). This is suggestive of the fact that positive regard is a significant part of the process-outcome equation for successful therapeutic outcomes (Farber & Doolin, 2011). These findings relate well with the current topic of compliments as a significant tool for mental well-being and psychotherapy. This study lacks a specificity in terms of generalisation. It does not include any specific information about which disorders would be best treated by positive regard. Still, the findings strengthen the idea of importance of positive feedback and compliments.
  • Reward-cost orientation (RCO) was investigated as a variable for individual differences in one of the studies conducted on fifth and sixth grade girls (Canavan-Gumpert, 1977). Results suggested that RCOs initiated with praise helped with better level of performance, risk taking capabilities and outcomes as compared with the ones initiated with criticism (Canavan-Gumpert, 1977). These findings add to the research evidences discussed so far about positive outcomes of compliments and their association with operant conditioning principles. Though this study cannot be generalized on a range of individuals. A bigger sample with a diverse range of participants is recommended for future research.
  • In a study conducted on age group 18+, re-framing compliments from romantic partners have been found to be fostering security in low self-esteem individuals (Marigold, Holmes et al. 2007). These findings highlight the positive effects of compliments. It is interesting how most of the studies relate well with the positive impacts of compliments.
  • Most of the research studies discussed so far, focused on children behavioural or academic outcomes after receiving compliments. In order to assess adolescents’ preferences for rewards and praise regarding their academic behaviours, a survey was administered on 764 students from adolescent age group (Fefer, DeMagistris, & Shuttleton, 2016). Main reason behind this study was less use of compliments at high school level (Fefer et al., 2016). Outcomes of this study indicated higher expectations and requirements for rewards and positive feedback at adolescent stage (Fefer et al., 2016). The most preferred way of rewards was suggested as quiet praise by the teachers (Fefer et al., 2016). This study recommended more use of rewards and praise at adolescent stage, than it was already happening (Fefer et al., 2016). This study supported the principles of operant conditioning highlighting the significance of positive reinforcement in terms of praise and rewards. Also, the findings indicate a need of more research and study regarding adolescent behaviours and theory of operant conditioning.
  • A research conducted to investigate praise as a reinforcing factor among socially unresponsive psychiatric patients found praise to be an influential modifier for the target behaviours (Stahl, Thomson, Leitenberg, & Hasazi, 1974). This study demonstrated praise as a major contributory factor for enhancing social responsiveness and also, identified praise as a factor enhancing readjustment among the patients included in the study for their contingencies towards environmental reinforcers (Stahl, Thomson, Leitenberg, & Hasazi, 1974). This indicates the remedial value of compliments for psychological well-being and provides another evidence for compliments as reinforcing factors, strengthening the idea of link between compliments and theory of operant conditioning.

Compliments: A negative approach[edit | edit source]

  • Surprisingly, a study focused on examining the informative value of evaluative behaviours found complimenting statements to be associated with lower level of perceived success at difficult activities under specific conditions (Wulf-Uwe et al., 1979), whereas, criticism was found to be linked with higher level of expectations for perceived success on difficult tasks, as this led to better performance intensity. The findings of this study suggest possible negative impacts of misuse of compliments or praising under certain situations when compliments give a sense of lower level of ability for the person being praised. This signifies the effective use of the power of compliments, while ensuring higher level of motivation and healthy emotional states.
  • People having negativity towards their everyday life often respond pessimistically towards compliments. A study conducted by Henry P. Ward aimed at examining the impact of 'The Enteric-Coated Compliments' on patients of depression, who were more on the side of taking positive compliments as negatively insulting statements (Ward, 1971). This study found enteric-coated compliments to be therapeutic in dealing with negative people, which means using negative interpretations while complimenting such people was more influential rather than using positive statements for compliments (Ward, 1971). These findings relate well with the recommendations of considering individual differences while complimenting people.
  • Generally, it is assumed that if someone compliments others, that person would be liked more by the person who receives compliments. A study aiming at examining the impact of compliments for cross-cultural differences, found social-group oriented compliments to hold a negative depersonalising impact on people from individualistic cultures (Siy & Cheryan, 2013). Hence, it is important to be reasonable and careful about what is being said and how would it impact others while passing compliments.

Enhancing the positive impacts of compliments[edit | edit source]

It is significant to consider the factors that impact the power of compliments.

  • Most of the research studies discussed in this chapter indicated importance of the praise for efforts than for the ability levels. A study based on single subject research methods found the opposite findings (Weaver, Watson, Cashwell, Hinds, & Fascio, 2004). It does not support the pervasive idea of criticising ability-based praise in comparison to praising for the efforts (Weaver et al., 2004). Though this study holds the drawbacks of single subject methods. It is highly recommended to research more in this area of investigating the correct context for praise using other research methods with a bigger group size for overcoming generalisation issues.
  • A research study with contradictory findings stated that praise for intelligence can sometimes undermine children's performance on certain tasks and hence, impact their motivation adversely (Mueller & Dweck, 1998). This study indicated that praise for intelligence in fifth graders resulted in low task persistence, lower level of enjoyment for the task and low ability attributions in comparison to children who were praised for their efforts (Mueller & Dweck, 1998). This study has been helpful in directing the appropriate use of encouragement and praise for best outcomes and focusing on what is the most relevant meaning of being specific and concise while complimenting people.
  • Another study stated that praise is perceived as sincere, it is particularly beneficial to motivation when it encourages performance attributions to controllable causes, promotes autonomy, enhances competence without an over reliance on social comparisons, and conveys attainable standards and expectations (Henderlong and Lepper 2002). Though this study also included interesting argument of how sometimes, compliments can be an undermining factor for intrinsically motivated states of individuals (Henderlong and Lepper 2002). This relates well with the cognitive evaluation theory. This study is, however, too specific in terms of applicability. It included children as participants. Findings for adolescents or adults might be different. For ensuring generalisation, it is recommended to conduct the same investigation for different age-groups.

After analysing the findings of a range of research studies, it seems to be very important to consider what to praise people for and how to enhance the positive impact of compliments. Table 1. includes some interesting information about giving compliments.

Table 1
Giving compliments

Giving Compliments Description
1. Be sincere A genuine, congruent expression of praise or appreciation is a potent tool for improving and maintaining relationship.;
“Congruent” means that the verbal and non-verbal elements match up;
Saying the person’s name, making eye contact, smiling, and leaning in toward the person you are complimenting all highlight your verbal message.
2. Be specific While complimenting, it is important to be specific about the reason of complimenting.
3. Acknowledge the impact of praiseworthy effort It is very important to add in how the praiseworthy effort has positively affected you, the organisation, or something else.
4. Try giving the compliment as a question It can be simple, like, “I love those earrings; where did you get them?” Or a follow-up question can also be asked, such as: “You really connected with the audience during that talk. Was it hard to come up with relevant material?”
5. Be moderate Over-the-top gushing can cause the recipient to feel self-conscious and make it harder to accept your compliment.

(Carbonatto, 2015).

Quiz[edit | edit source]

Please attempt this quiz, after going through this book chapter:


1 Question 1. Which of these terms refer to short-lasting affective states?


2 Question 2. Which of these is not an appropriate way of reacting to the compliments?

pure thanking ("Thank you").
agreeing ("Yes, I also think it's good").
ignoring the compliment, while displaying an arrogant attitude.
(thanking and) expressing gladness ("I'm glad you like it.

3 Question 3. Which of these psychological theories are not discussed in this book chapter?

Theory of classical conditioning.
Theory of operant conditioning.
Theory of self-efficacy.
Cognitive evaluation theory.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Though compliments are well recommended as a way to encourage positive reinforcement of the admired behaviour both theoretically and empirically, more research is required to differentiate the interlinked concepts associated with compliments, such as complimenting and flattering etc. Sometimes, overuse of complimenting someone may impact the productivity of the positive language. Also considering cross-cultural differences, age groups, context of compliments and other related issues are very important while using praising statements. Further studies are highly recommended to obtain an evidence based information covering all relevant factors associated with compliments, so that compliments can be used in the best possible ways, assisting in positive and healthy outcomes.

  • Take-home message: Compliments have a positive impact on motivating people and they trigger the emotional well-being in a healthy way. It is very important to be mindful while complimenting others for an appropriate utilisation of compliments, in order to avoid the drawbacks associated with their misuse.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Andrews, L., & Kozma, A. (1990). Increasing teacher praise and altering its distribution to children of differing on-task levels. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science / Revue canadienne des sciences du comportement, 22(2), 110-120.

Brummelman, E., Thomaes, S., Overbeek, G., Orobio de Castro, B., van den Hout, M. A., & Bushman, B. J. (2014). On feeding those hungry for praise: Person praise backfires in children with low self-esteem. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143(1), 9-14.

Canavan-Gumpert, D. (1977). Generating reward and cost orientations through praise and criticism. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35(7), 501-513.

Carbonatto, D. M. (2015). The power of compliments. Retrieved from

Castro, K. M. (2013). Authentic Compliments: Creating an Internal Shift to Positivity

Farber, B. A., & Doolin, E. M. (2011). Positive regard. Psychotherapy, 48(1), 58-64.

Farchione, T. J., Boswell, J. F., & Wilner, J. G. (2017). Behavioral activation strategies for major depression in transdiagnostic cognitive-behavioral therapy: An evidence-based case study. Psychotherapy, 54(3), 225-230.

Fefer, S., DeMagistris, J., & Shuttleton, C. (2016). Assessing adolescent praise and reward preferences for academic behavior. Translational Issues in Psychological Science, 2(2), 153-162.

Gunderson, E. A., et al. (2018). Parent praise to toddlers predicts fourth grade academic achievement via children’s incremental mindsets. Developmental Psychology, 54(3), 397-409.

Henderlong, J. and M. R. Lepper. (2002). The effects of praise on children's intrinsic motivation: A review and synthesis. Psychological Bulletin, 128(5), 774-795.

Jones, K. M., Young, M. M., & Friman, P. C. (2000). Increasing peer praise of socially rejected delinquent youth: Effects on cooperation and acceptance. School Psychology Quarterly, 15(1), 30-39.

Marigold, D. C., et al. (2007). More than words: Reframing compliments from romantic partners fosters security in low self-esteem individuals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(2), 232-248.

Mueller, C. M., & Dweck, C. S. (1998). Praise for intelligence can undermine children's motivation and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(1), 33-52.

Siy, J. O., & Cheryan, S. (2013). When compliments fail to flatter: American individualism and responses to positive stereotypes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 104(1), 87-102.

Stahl, J. R., Thomson, L. E., Leitenberg, H., & Hasazi, J. E. (1974). Establishment of praise as a conditioned reinforcer in socially unresponsive psychiatric patients. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 83(5), 488-496.

van Schie, C.C., Chiu, C., Rombouts, S.A.R.B., Heiser, W.J., Elzinga, B.M. (2018). When compliments do not hit but critiques do: an fMRI study into self-esteem and self-knowledge in processing social feedback. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 13(4), 404–417.

Ward, H. P. (1971). The enteric-coated compliment. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 8(4), 280-281.

Weaver, A. D., Watson, T. S., Cashwell, C., Hinds, J., & Fascio, S. (2004). The effects of ability- and effort-based praise on task persistence and task performance. The Behavior Analyst Today, 4(4), 361-368.

Wulf-Uwe, M., Meinolf, B., Ursula, B., Marianne, H., Fritz-Otto, P., & Helga, S. (1979). The informational value of evaluative behavior: Influences of praise and blame on perceptions of ability. Journal of Educational Psychology, 71(2), 259-268.

External Links[edit | edit source]