Backhanded Compliments: How Negative Comparisons Undermine Flattery

by Ovul Sezer, Alison Wood Brooks, and Michael I. Norton

Overview — Backhanded compliments seem like praise but can leave a sting. This study explores the psychology of backhanded compliments. Flatterers deploy backhanded compliments to garner liking while conveying social status. Recipients view praise of this kind as strategic put-downs and penalize would-be flatterers even as the backhanded compliment undermines their motivation and perseverance.

Author Abstract

Seven studies (N = 2352) examine backhanded compliments—seeming praise that draws a comparison with a negative standard—a distinct self-presentation strategy with two simultaneous goals: eliciting liking (“Your speech was good…”) and conveying status (“…for a woman”). Backhanded compliments are common, from delivering feedback in work settings to communicating in casual conversation and take several distinct forms (Studies 1a-b). Backhanded compliments have mixed effectiveness, as people who deliver backhanded compliments erroneously believe that they will both convey high status and elicit liking (Studies 2a-2b), but recipients and third-party evaluators grant them neither (Studies 3a-3b); however, backhanded compliments are successful in reducing recipients’ motivation (Study 3c). We identify two constructs useful in determining the general effectiveness of ingratiation: excessive concern with image drives negative perceptions of backhanded compliment givers, while perceptions of low relative rank in a distribution drives the reduced motivation of backhanded compliment recipients.

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