Helping your insecure partner or encouraging small children: overloading with compliments seems like a good and easy medicine. Or not? In the book Psychological Perspectives on Praise 32 behavioral scientists say that a compliment sometimes does more harm than good.
In the West we sometimes go wrong in giving compliments, says developmental psychologist Eddie Brummelman of the University of Amsterdam, editor of the book. “We have become more and more individualistic. We find it more and more important that we feel good about ourselves and that our children stand out above the ground level.”
More compliments are given in America than in Japan and China, for example. “And while the compliments there are about commitment and contribution to the collective, in the West the person is praised more often.”
We have to be very careful with compliments like that, warns Brummelman. “A compliment is a positive judgment, but it remains a judgment. Children are sensitive to this.” Behavioral scientist Patty Leijten is also submitting Psychological Perspectives on Praise that as soon as children begin to understand anything about language, subtle differences in the wording of a compliment can already determine a positive or negative effect. Brummelman: “Compliments are really much more complex than we think.”
“A compliment is a positive judgment, but it remains a judgment. Children are sensitive to this. ”
Eddie Brummelman, Developmental Psychologist
“How smart you are!”
Giving compliments to your child, especially if he or she is insecure, seems like a healthy reflex, says Brummelman, “but unfortunately this is sometimes counterproductive for these children.” Compliments such as ‘how smart are you’ or ‘how incredibly good you can sing’ slow down an insecure child, instead of motivating it, he explains. The child can start to avoid challenges; afraid of not being able to live up to expectations.
But how should it be done? Don’t praise the person, but reward the behavior, says Brummelman. If a child comes home with a good grade, ‘how hard you worked’ is a better compliment than ‘how smart you are. “In case of future setbacks, the child will not think ‘I am too stupid’, but ‘I will do my best even better’.”
“The more insecure one partner, the more compliments the other gives in the attempt to remove the uncertainty. And especially insecure people can find so many compliments unbelievable. ”
Edward Lemay, professor of psychology
Compliments are not always beneficial for adults either. For insecure people, it is nice and reassuring to receive compliments from their partner in the short term, writes professor of psychology Edward Lemay in Psychological Perspectives on Praise. But he doubts whether it will work in the long term. The more insecure one partner, the more compliments the other gives in the attempt to remove the uncertainty, research shows. And especially insecure people can find so many compliments unbelievable.
A possible solution for this is to compensate the compliments with criticism of less sensitive areas, Lemay suggests. For example, is your partner insecure about his or her appearance but less about his or her cooking skills? Then compliment the appearance but criticize the oven dish.
Showing affection and warmth can be done without a compliment
Doesn’t a compliment lose its sincerity and spontaneity when it needs to be thought about so carefully? “Of course it is nice to receive or give a compliment spontaneously,” says Brummelman, “but if compliments play a structural role in your life, it is good to change something.”
Think carefully about whether a compliment is really necessary, he recommends. Compliments are not necessary for affection and warmth, but spending time together and showing interest in each other does. “Look at that beautiful drawing together, talk about the good mark and ask questions instead of judging. Enjoying together is often much more meaningful than complimenting each other.”