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.

Friday, February 5, 2016

The Power of a Compliment

I have recently become aware of an important aspect of human nature: we are phenomenal suckers for flattery.

This fact became clear to me a couple of weeks ago when I was shopping with my mother. She was trying on a dress which she was fairly indifferent about, when a sales assistant walked over. We were fully aware that the sales assistant was about to try and persuade us to buy the dress, therefore we were preparing ourselves to be bombarded with persuasive sales techniques:

 “You look absolutely lovely, what’s the occasion?”
“That colour really suits you and this jewellery would look amazing with the outfit too!”

Were these simple sales techniques really an effective was to sell a dress? The answer in this instance was yes; she ended up buying it! Even when we were both fully aware that the sales assistant was using compliments in order to sell the dress, it was an incredibly powerful tool.

People are more likely to be persuaded to say ‘yes’ when you make them feel good about themselves. They will do almost anything for you when you provide them with a rush of self-esteem that comes with receiving a compliment. In the modern world, people commonly influence our behaviour by giving us compliments; most things we choose to buy are a produce of social influence. Although there may be limits to our gullibility, especially when we are aware that the flatterer is trying to gain something from us, we tend to believe praise and to like those who provide us with it.

This simple, yet powerful persuasive technique is demonstrated in an experiment conducted by Drachman, deCarufel and Insko (1978). This study investigates the effect of different levels of evaluation (positive, negative or mixed) on the liking of an evaluator. When a group of men from North Carolina received comments about themselves from an evaluator, they found that attraction of the evaluator increased with more positive evaluations; the evaluator who provided the most praise was liked the most.

The researchers also investigated the effect of accuracy of the comment on evaluation of the flatterer. They found that praise did not have to be accurate to work; positive comments produced just as much liking for the flatterer when they were untrue as when they were true. This shows that flattery seems to have an influence on behaviour, even when it is not sincere.

This tendency also held true when the men were fully aware that the flatterer stood to gain from their liking him. This is the same phenomenon that I observed when my mother bought the dress, despite knowing the sales assistant was possibly complimenting her in order to be liked so that she would make a sale.

This study demonstrates the immense power that praise can have on our behaviour. Cialdini (2009) argued that humans have an automatically positive reaction to compliments and that we will fall victim to those who use flattery, even when used in an obvious attempt to win our favour or when the compliments are inaccurate.

Humans have a psychological need to be respected and accepted. We crave affection and praise in order to satisfy our need to belong, feel admired, and to fulfil our need for personal worth. The change in behaviour that is evident in situations where someone has received a compliment can be explained by the fact that people act and behave in a certain way in order to validate compliments. Compliments have a powerful influence on behaviour, as they make the recipient feel needed and valued. This individual will now feel that they have a reputation to live up to and will want to behave in certain ways in order to validate the compliments. Praise can have a powerful effect on us by inducing a significant boost in self-esteem, as seen in the example previously mentioned. Presenting a compliment (it doesn’t even have to be sincere or accurate) can build up a person’s self-esteem, resulting in them being more inclined to like you, and can result in behaviour change. This proves that giving compliments in order to sell things to people is neither a costly nor a foolish thing to do.  


Cialdini, R. B. (2009). Influence: Science and practice. Boston, MA: Pearson Education.

Drachman, D., DeCarufel, A., & Insko, C. A. (1978). The extra credit effect in interpersonal attraction. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 14, 458-465.

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