The cost of compliments

Can a compliment be a bad thing?

In the moment, no, a compliment can’t be a bad thing, but over time, an excessive amount of compliments could have negative effects on a person’s life. In the 1980s and 1990s, there was a “self-esteem movement” in which parents and teachers were told to focus on encouraging children and bringing up their self-worth. This meant that millennials were raised with a surplus of compliments and constant praise. But how has that affected the generation overall?

In a study first published in 1998 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, children were rewarded for simply ‘doing their own thing’ – drawing, playing and so on. But when the rewards were discontinued, the children tended to lose interest in the activity.

“Expecting praise for doing things can pretty soon make that thing seem not worth doing at all if you don’t get the praise,” said Mike Tyrell, a psychologist.

Photos by Andrew Iressel

This might seem like a strong negative effect in terms of praise, but surprisingly it is not the most dangerous. The real risk in getting constant praise is when we get praise for doing tasks we should normally be doing.

The late Milton Erikson found that giving too much praise to a patient for doing everyday tasks such as starting to work or socializing with friends sent the message that what they were doing was exceptional behavior, when it was not praiseworthy at all.

The real downside to this type of constant commending is that people stop trying to exceed expectations because they believe they are already extraordinary on a normal day.

“Being rewarded for doing things you really should be doing anyway can diminish genuine motivation,” Tyrell said.

There has to be a good balance in a child’s life for praise and compliments. If they do not get enough, they can start to see themselves as not good enough; if they get too much, they think they are better than they actually are.

Edward Bignar, a GV student, said: “It’s hard finding a good balance. I grew up in a home where there was no compliments or praise at all, and on the other hand, I saw others who grew up in a home where they got participation trophies for everything, and now those kids are set up for a false worldview.”

It feels good to get a compliment on something about yourself, and it even feels good to give compliments most of the time, but over-complimenting someone can have a negative influence on them.

When giving or receiving a compliment, many times that compliment reflects someone’s physical appearance or a fixed attribute about them. It is not wrong telling someone they look good or they have nice hair. But the downside to someone hearing compliments like this all the time is they may devote time and effort to keeping up their appearance just in the hopes of getting more compliments.


“It is so strange that even the networks themselves are centered around being ‘friends,’ being ‘liked,’ and being ‘followed,’ which are all positive reinforcements, and people think the more you have, the better you are”

– Jim Hanson


Jess Whittlestone, a psychology researcher and writer, said, “I think this means that we should be very careful not to compliment people too much on traits that we don’t think are valuable in themselves or that might encourage behaviors that aren’t actually good for that person.”

Most people enjoy getting or giving compliments, but we need to pay more attention to how much we are seeking compliments from others. Some people might not even realize they are actively seeking compliments or positive feedback from others because it is just their personalities.

“Even if you don’t realize it, you’re going to be motivated to act in ways you think the people around you are likely to respond positively to,” Whittlestone said.

We live in the age of the internet, and this means that compliments and praise have transformed into instant likes, comments and reactions.

Jim Hanson, a psychology professor at GV, said “the internet is a wonderful thing that is a big problem.”

The biggest problem with the internet is that people thrive on others’ acceptance more on the internet than in real life. This could be that our internet profiles make our real life look more glamorous and exciting than it actually is. But this is dangerous because then people start valuing their self-worth at the number of likes they get in their photos.

Photo by Andrew Iressel

“It is so strange that even the networks themselves are centered around being ‘friends,’ being ‘liked,’ being ‘followed,’ which are all positive reinforcements, and people think the more you have, the better you are,” Hanson said.

People have been known to do crazy things in the hopes of getting more likes. Some use Photoshop to enhance a photo or lighting, put themselves in dangerous situations to get “the perfect shot” or even have phone cases that have a light around the exterior to help capture the “perfect selfie.”

Millennials are a prime example of what happens to a generation when given too many compliments and excessive praise as young children.

“I think that we are a very selfish generation, and we think that it is all about us,” said Alli Jones, a GV student. “We are constantly receiving compliments and praise, and that is what we will be feeding off of, where everything we strive for is for that compliment or praise, and that’s not what it should be about.”

Not all millennials have this selfish mentality, but a lot are more self-centered than their parents were. The self-esteem movement had a good thought behind it, but they didn’t realize the major drawbacks it brought with it.

“If you give too many compliments too soon in life, the children won’t grow up to be motivated because they have learned no matter what they do they are awesome, and that’s really not the case,” Hanson said.

So the answer to the question “can compliments be a bad thing?” is that compliments are good in moderation. It always feels good to know when we are doing something right or have done a great job, but compliments need to be handled like sugar, taken in moderation – too much can be damaging to our overall health.

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