The Psychology of Praise (book)

A new book has been published on the psychology of complimenting: Psychological perspectives on praise (Brummelman (Ed.), 2020). Complimenting is a technique we use often and often with the best of intentions. But the psychology of praise is quite complex. 

The effects of compliments are not always what we expect from them. In this book, 36 researchers in 16 chapters analyze praise from different theoretical perspectives such as the self-enhancement theory, the self-verification theory, the attribution theory, and the self-determination theory. Below I briefly discuss two interesting chapters from the book.

A transactional model of compliments

Eddie Brummelman and Carol Dweck (H7) explain that parents and teachers often feel responsible for children's self-esteem and motivation. In countries traditionally referred to as "Western" countries, many adults believe that complimenting children is a good way to boost children's self-esteem and motivation. But the effects of compliments are often paradoxical.

Brummelman and Dweck present a transactional model of praise that describes a process that explains how adults often give (and continue to give) ineffective praise to children despite this ineffectiveness. This cyclical model consists of four steps:

In this cycle, complimenting starts from the idea that children need compliments to feel good about themselves, that the self-esteem resulting from compliments is necessary to be motivated and that good motivation is the basis for development and achievement (step 1). In step 2, they explain that compliments can vary in focus and intensity:
  1. Focus: focused on the person ("You are very smart!") or on the process ("You made a good effort!")
  2. Intensity: The compliment can be moderate ("Well done!") or "inflated" ("You did it incredibly well!")
When ("Western") adults feel that the child's self-esteem and motivation are not as strong, they are often more likely to give person-centered and inflated compliments. In step 3, the authors explain how children respond to compliments. At first, a child often feels good after a compliment. Secondly, however, person-centered and inflated compliments have significant drawbacks.

What doesn't work: person-oriented and inflated compliments

From person-centered compliments, children infer that the complimented quality (for example, intelligence) is considered important and that the adult thinks the child possesses this quality. In response to this, children often develop a concern about the extent to which they actually own the trait. They may start to avoid challenges for fear of not being able to live up to the compliment. Giving person-centered compliments can generate a fixed mindset and have long-term effects. Process compliments do not have this disadvantage. They often generate a growth mindset and stimulate the search for challenges.

Inflated compliments often stem from the good intention of making children who feel bad about themselves feel good about themselves. But research shows that inflated compliments often backfire. Children who have received them tend to shy away from challenges for fear of not being able to live up to the high standard described by the compliment ("Incredibly well!"). They often feel that they have not deserved the exaggerated compliments and their self-esteem often diminishes rather than increases after such compliments.

Adults often do not notice these adverse effects well. They see the child's initially happy response as an indication that their compliment was effective. The adverse psychological process in the child's mind takes place later and is not clearly visible to the adult. Adults do not associate future avoidant behavior and further reduced self-esteem with their own inflated compliments. In fact, when they perceive the low self-esteem, they often tend to start over-complimenting again.

Compliments through the lens of self-determination theory

Bart Soenens and Maarten Vansteenkiste (4) look at praise through the lens of self-determination theory. They summarize their discussion of the factors involved in praise and the effects of these praise in the following figure:
The authors explain that the effectiveness of compliments largely depends on the functional meaning that the recipient sees in them. We can roughly experience two functions in compliments:
  1. Informative: when the compliment gives us information about whether we have been working effectively. Informational compliments can support basic psychological needs (especially the need for competence) and thus have a positive impact on the motivation and well-being of the recipient.
  2. Controlling: When we feel that the other person is trying to pressure or manipulate us. Controlling compliments can undermine basic psychological needs (especially the need for autonomy), thereby undermining the recipient's motivation and well-being.
When the complimenting person uses neutral and descriptive words, this is more likely to lead to an experience of an informative compliment. When the complimenting person uses more controlling words ("you must", "you should", "what I expect from you," etc.), a controlling meaning is more likely to be assigned to the compliment. The immediate context and even the social context can also play a role in how the compliment is intended. A context that is perceived as very hierarchical or competitive is more likely to lead to an interpretation of the compliment as controlling.

The timing of compliments can also have an influence. Compliments can be perceived as controlling when parents use them to communicate conditional regard. This parenting style, in which parents mainly or only communicate appreciation for the child when it behaves as they wish, can be harmful.

Process-oriented and realistic compliments are informative

Soenens and Vansteenkiste also provide an explanation from self-determination theory of why process compliments and realistic (modestly formulated) compliments work better than personal compliments and inflated compliments. They argue that process compliments have more informational value than person compliments because they refer to specific behaviors or strategies. This allows them to strengthen the sense of competence. In person compliments, the recipient may feel that his / her self-esteem depends on his / her performance. This type of motivation, which is called introjected motivation, is of poor quality.

Inflated compliments also often have relatively little informative value because they can be interpreted as too general, unrealistic or insincere. Additionally, they can come across as controlling by being interpreted as communicating a lofty expectation.

Conclusions

  1. The idea that we can boost the motivation of others through person-centered and inflated compliments intuitively feels right but turns out to be wrong
  2. We should be modest and realistic in our compliments and focus them on the process (behavior, approach, etc.) rather than the person or traits of the person
  3. It is wise to let compliments be informative rather than controlling. The first strengthens motivation and well-being, the second weakens them 

Comments

  1. So true! It would go a long way to re-conceptualize "praise" as "feedback framed positively". Educators need to understand that when we say, "use five positive comments for every one negative comment", we are not talking about person-centered or inflated praise. Telling a child "you're so smart [strong, beautiful, etc.]" will ultimately work against the process. This is so hard for people to grasp, especially since our society lives on just these sorts of statements.

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