We all love compliments. A fact so ingrained in human nature that the previous sentence is very easily digestible without any scholarly backing. In fact, studies have shown that receiving compliments can even enhance our performance and make us better learners (Sugawara et al, 2012). All of us love to be told nice things about ourselves, but what is often ignored in this context is what kind of nice things do we want to hear? I know, the idea of preferences within compliments sounds a little strange, especially when written so bluntly. However, I’m pretty certain that reading that sentence immediately brings to mind your favourite compliment.
All of us have certain aspects of ourselves we are very proud of. And all of us have certain aspects of ourselves we are very insecure about. While the debate on the impact of both of these on our mental health is a long standing and complicated one, there is one thing that both of these have in common, and that is that compliments regarding each are the ones that resonate with us. Whether it is to rationalise the pride we have or reassure us that our insecurity may be unnecessary, I believe we all love to hear compliments regarding these particular aspects of ourselves, more than others.
More often than not, the compliments we hear have to do with our physical appearance and features. It is proven that in romantic contexts as well, the most frequently given compliments are appearance based (Doohan & Manusov, 2004). As much as we probably don’t want to accept that fact, I think we all can agree that compliments related to physical appearance will outnumber compliments that are not. So for the rest of this blog, I’m about to list out why that shouldn’t be so.
Now, as mentioned above, we all have things about ourselves we are proud of, and things we are insecure about. I purposely mentioned that these are ‘aspects’ of ourselves, emphasising that they could range from physical appearance, to personality traits to skills we have acquired. Research has shown that personality and appea
rance hold different values in different decisions. Additionally, affective judgements also vary when compliments (or critiques) are given on personality and appearance (Gao et al., 2019). In my personal experience, I would say the former brings about more pride (in the long run at least) than the latter. A personal example : I am passionate about dancing, and spend most of my time especially in quarantine, rehearsing and learning. I like to record most of the routines I’ve learnt and also put a reasonable amount of effort in getting ready for my videos. While I absolutely love when someone notices the way I look (also because I’ve put effort into it), I am much more likely to remember if someone compliments the dance in the video for much longer than the former. Of course, it can be argued that I feel so since the base context here is dance, I still feel this to be a strong example of the point I am trying to make.
Most of how we look is determined by our genetics and the environment we’ve grown up in. Unless of course we can shell out an unthinkable amount of money to alter the way we look, biology largely decides that for us. Due to this, most of our physical appearance is not in our control. This of course, does not stop us from feeling pride/ insecurity regarding it. In fact, if you scroll up on this page itself there are some very insightful blogs on the idea of body image and its impact on our mental health.
In today’s day and age, the world around us focuses so much on the way we look, that even when well intentioned, this focus can end up being harmful. Simply stated, even compliments on our physical appearance can contribute to insecurity regarding the same in the long run. When one is told that something about their physical appearance is attractive, in that moment of course there is extreme joy, however, there is also a subconscious pressure that is created to maintain that physical appearance in order to be positively viewed. According to research as well, both criticisms as well as compliments about physical appearances “serve as a reminder that others are evaluating his or her appearance and lead to a greater focus on appearance” (Herbozo & Thompson, 2006). In the society we live in, this holds especially true for women, largely due to the tendency to be objectified. Objectification theory states that we live in a society where women’s bodies are almost constantly looked at, evaluated, and potentially objectified. Because women are aware of this constant possibility of being looked at and evaluated, many begin to measure their self-worth and happiness by their physical appearance (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997).
When this happens, self -objectification i.e. taking an observer’s view on one’s own body, can lead to severe negative mental health outcomes (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997). In this matter especially, compliments related to physical appearance can contribute to those negative outcomes. A study done on women at a University in Israel, showed that those women who had received appearance-based compliments (but not competence-related compliments) showed worse math performance than women had not received any compliments at all, especially if they scored high on trait self-objectification (TSO) (Kahalon, Shnabel & Becker, 2018). Personally, I am very insecure about my bunny teeth, and even on the rare occasion that I have been told by someone that they are ‘cute’, I have of course in that moment felt good. But later by thinking more about the attention they attracted, I’ve ended up feeling even more insecure. By focusing on each other’s physical attributes (even if it is to compliment them), we tend to enforce the idea that one’s physical appearance is what defines them. Since many of us can tend to tie our self worth to our physical appearance, even excessive positive feedback on the same can have a counterintuitive effect (Calogero, Herbozo & Thompson, 2009).
That’s not to say that I believe compliments about physical appearance are innately wrong, they definitely do have the tendency to make people very happy. The point I am trying to make here is that other compliments may be able to make them happier. Additionally, compliments regarding physical appearance are very easy, and require not much effort from the person giving the compliment. For example, telling someone they look ‘pretty’ when they walk into a room, is a compliment that can be given with less than 10 seconds spent on looking at them. However, telling someone that their energy or presence makes the atmosphere more pleasant, implies more effort put into the compliment as well as more attention paid to the person being complimented, and is thus more likely to resonate with them.
So in conclusion, the point I’ve hopefully succeeded in making is that when we wish to make someone feel good about themselves, our mind may immediately jump to complimenting their physical appearance. While we may mean extremely well when doing so, maybe we should take a moment to think before we do the same. Even an extra moment's thought may lead us to finding something more meaningful to say to someone, which may make all the difference to them.
1. Sugawara, S., Tanaka, S., Okazaki, S., Watanabe, K., & Sadato, N. (2012). Social Rewards Enhance Offline Improvements in Motor Skill. Plos ONE, 7(11), e48174. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0048174
2. Doohan, E. M., and Manusov, V. (2004). The communication of compliments in romantic relationships: an investigation of relational satisfaction and sex differences and similarities in compliment behavior. West. J. Commun. 68, 170–194. doi: 10.1080/10570310409374795
3. Herbozo, S., & Thompson, J. K. (2006b). Appearance‐related commentary, body image, and self‐esteem: Does the distress associated with the commentary matter? Body Image: An International Journal of Research, 3, 255– 262.
4. Calogero, R., Herbozo, S., & Thompson, J. (2009). Complimentary Weightism: The Potential Costs of Appearance-Related Commentary for Women's Self-Objectification. Psychology Of Women Quarterly, 33(1), 120-132. doi: 10.1111/j.1471-6402.2008.01479.x
5. Gao, S., Luo, L., Zhang, W., Lan, Y., Gou, T., & Li, X. (2019). Personality Counts More Than Appearance for Men Making Affective Judgments of Verbal Comments. Frontiers In Psychology, 10. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00078
6. Fredrickson, B. L., & Roberts, T. (1997). Objectification theory: Toward understanding women’s lived experiences and mental health risks. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 21, 173– 206.
7. Kahalon, R., Shnabel, N., & Becker, J. (2018). “Don’t Bother Your Pretty Little Head”. Psychology Of Women Quarterly, 42(2), 136-150. doi: 10.1177/0361684318758596.
Malhar is an intern at Katharsis, and a final year undergraduate student at University College London, pursuing a BSc. in Social Sciences. She is particularly interested in mental health research and developmental psychology. She is interested in exploring different approaches to mental health management and coping, specifically in adolescents and teenagers. She is currently doing her final year dissertation on anxiety amongst international students in university and the impact of Covid-19 on the same. Apart from psychology, she is extremely passionate about dance and all kinds of food!