Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The power of a compliment

The use of compliments is widely considered as a very powerful tool for compliance, with most of us being familiar with well-known sayings such as ‘flattery will get you everywhere’. It is thought that we tend to like people more if they compliment us, which in turn makes us more willing to comply with their requests. Certainly, the value of being liked when seeking compliance from others has been discussed at length, whether it be due to physical attractiveness, similarity or familiarity, to name just a few examples (Cialdini, 2009).

A recent study by Grant et al. (2010) has systematically evaluated the effectiveness of compliments as a compliance technique, using a scripted situation involving one participant and two confederates (one acting as a fellow participant and another as an experimenter). During this set up, the participants completed a questionnaire, and while waiting for the experimenter to return, the confederate started a conversation with the participant.

In the compliment condition, the confederate might have said, “I like your sweater, where did you get it?” and in the control condition, they may have said, “Do you find it warm in here?” The conversation would then lead to the confederate asking whether the participant would help hand out some flyers for which they were responsible. In the final phase of the study, they were asked by the experimenter to switch questionnaires and form impressions of each other based on the responses.

It turned out that simply paying someone a compliment on an item of clothing nearly doubled compliance rates to the request to hand out flyers, with 79% of participants in the compliment condition vs. 46% in the control condition complying. This demonstrates that compliments were effective in increasing compliance to a direct request.

Furthermore, compliments increased liking of the confederate as measured by the impressions formed after switching questionnaires. However, liking and compliance were uncorrelated, suggesting that although flattery is a powerful way of getting someone to comply with our requests, increased liking may not be responsible for this effect. Of course, it may play a role, but it might not be necessary for compliance.

Instead, the authors of the study offer alternative explanations for why compliments work so well. One such possibility is that compliments produce feelings of indebtedness toward the flatterer, since compliments can be viewed as a prosocial behaviour, thereby making us feel as though we should return the favour by reciprocating with another act of prosocial behaviour, regardless of how much we like them. Indeed, the norm of reciprocation has been cited as one of the most persuasive social forces- we feel obliged to repay others for what we’ve received from them (Cialdini & Goldstein, 2004).

In conclusion, the exact mechanisms underlying the power of compliments are still to be seen, but we do know that flattery is sure to get you places.


Cialdini, R. B. (2009). Influence: Science and Practice (5th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Cialdini, R. B., & Goldstein, N. J. (2004). Social influence: Compliance and conformity. Annual Review of Psychology, 55, 591-621.

Grant, N. K., Fabirgar, L. R., & Lim, H. (2010). Exploring the efficacy of compliments as a tactic for securing compliance. Basic and Applied Psychology, 32(3), 226-233.

Charlotte Chan

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