author: niplav, created: 2019-09-26, modified: 2020-07-22, language: english, status: maintenance, importance: 3, confidence: unlikely

People seem to derive happiness from compliments. Therefore, altruistic consequentialists may be sometimes motivated to compliment others. Questions are raised on how and whom to compliment.

Compliments as Utilitarian Praxis

It seems like people don't get as many compliments as they want, and that getting a compliment greatly enhances the quality of their lives. Some people even report to remember compliments months or even years after they get them and are very happy about them.

This creates a good opportunity for utilitarians (both hedonic and preference) to use otherwise wasted time. Since there is often time where one has nothing to do (e.g waiting at a trainstation, an airport, or while at the checkout line at the grocery store) and that can't be used productively otherwise, a utilitarian could make somebody a compliment in that time. This is of course only advisable if the time can't be used productively otherwise (for example by earning money to donate, learning something or contributing to a project).

There seem to be two advantages in this scenario, one for the compliment-giver and one for the compliment-receiver. Giving compliments is usually fun, and therefore makes both the compliment-giver and the compliment-receiver happier. It also entails contact with other humans in a positive situation, and might be useful for increasing the compliment-giver's well-being and therewith productivity.

Since utilitarians would care about the marginal value of a compliment, it would be best to give compliments to people who receive the highest marginal value by a compliment. This would probably be people who rarely receive compliments (under the assumption that compliments have steeply diminishing marginal returns), which would perhaps include people who are not conventionally attractive, male, and not very well dressed. When giving these people compliments, there seems to be a problem: It might not be as easy to give them genuine compliments as to more conventionally attractive and stylish people, but one can give dishonest compliments instead. This would lead to two possible problems:

  1. People might interpret these compliments as advice on what to wear and how to look, and since this perceived advice might be harmful, it may have slight negative effects on social success.

  2. People might be good at recognising dishonest compliments and be offended or even sad about the dishonest compliment.

Since it doesn't seem hard to find at least one positive aspect of the visual appearance of a person, it seems advisable to avoid dishonest but positive compliments.

However, suffering-focused consequentialists probably have less incentives to give compliments, since compliments simply seem to enhance the well-being of a person, and compliments to random strangers would rarely be given to people who suffer greatly. A weak case can be made that compliments seem to have a long-term effect on well-being and might rarely play a role in reducing negative effects of depression. Still, negative utilitarians have the same otherwise unusable time of waiting in public space, and might want to capitalize on this small opportunity.

A Simple Calculation

Let's say that a compliment is worth \$0.50 to the average stranger, and it (conservatively) takes 1 minute to give the compliment. Let's say that the opportunity cost is \$10. This means that an hour of giving compliments is worth

$$(\frac{\$0.50}{1\hbox{ compliment}}*\frac{1\hbox{ compliment}}{1\hbox{ min}}*60\hbox{ min})-\$10=$25$$

On the other hand, \$0.50 is maybe too much for the value of a compliment. If one instead assumes it to be \$0.10, the value of one hour giving compliments to strangers is

$$(\frac{\$0.10}{1\hbox{ compliment}}*\frac{1\hbox{ compliment}}{1\hbox{ min}}*60\hbox{ min})-\$10=$5$$


If one is not properly socially calibrated, a compliment could be perceived as weird or intrusive and not achieve the desired result of making the other person feel better. This could also be a problem if the value of a compliment is heavily dependent on characteristics of the person giving the compliment.

It seems like men often perceive a compliment by a woman as an indicator of interest and respond with flirting. And related to the caveat about social calibration, compliments by men might be misperceived as an attempt at flirting or even cat-calling and make the woman receiving the compliment uncomfortable.

It could be that compliments on visual appearance further a very shallow and visual image of attractiveness. If the effects of this are strong, it might be advisable to instead give compliments to acquaintances and compliment their personality instead of their appearance. However, this seems unlikely.


Reddit Comments About Compliments

“I’m pretty sure that you might be partly a genius” - boss. […] I know he was blowing smoke because he immediately asked me to Do a Thing, but it was a nice moment of vindication for me.

Princ3Ch4rming, comment on “What are some compliments that you have received or given that are unforgettable?” on /r/AskMen (138 points), 2018

Emphasis mine.

In 8th grade, every morning when coming to school, I had to go through the cafeteria to get to my class and my favorite teacher would always sit there having her morning coffee. I would always smile and say good morning as I pass by. One morning she suddenly stopped me and said "I just want to say that it really makes me happy seeing you smile so wide to me every morning". No one had ever pointed out my smile before, at least not like that. Felt a glow for days.

yudodisdolan, answer to “What are some compliments that you have received or given that are unforgettable?” on /r/AskMen (162 upvotes), 2018

Emphasis mine.

When my wife says she is proud of me. That's the best thing anyone has ever said to me.

— unknown redditor, answer to “What are some compliments that you have received or given that are unforgettable?” on /r/AskMen (157 upvotes), 2018

Emphasis mine.

This one girl liked my laugh. First off she told me it was contagious. She then sometimes would just comment on how I can find joy and amusement in the smallest things and such. […] They're [the compliments] unforgettable, because as a guy, I find it very hard to receive complements more than one or twice a year when you're not fishing for them. Especially ones not relating to your new sweater but things about YOU personally. It just doesn't happen. Unless you count your mom's

nikolakis7, answer to “What are some compliments that you have received or given that are unforgettable?” on /r/AskMen (65 upvotes), 2018

Emphasis mine.

Besides illustrating that there might be a gender-gap in receiving compliments, it also shows that there might be some preference for compliments by acquaintances, on not directly visible characteristics, which speaks slightly against giving compliments to strangers.

When I was living in Scotland, there were two girls in a public square with a booth for some kind of campaign I can't remember. When I went past them, I smiled and one of them asked me to take a picture with them "because I was handsome". I went for years alone on that compliment.

Motorchampion, answer to “What are some compliments that you have received or given that are unforgettable?” on /r/AskMen (102 points), 2018

Emphasis mine.

Another user responds "I'd be milking that decades later too lol".

It seems important that he was asked by women, which adds some credence to the hypothesis that characteristics of the compliment-giver are important.

"That jacket looks good on you." 4 years later, still wearing it

xaivteev, answer to “What are some compliments that you have received or given that are unforgettable?” on /r/AskMen (39 comments), 2018

This indicates that comments might be taken as advice, which should lead to caution what to compliment.

A girl called me “so witty” when I was 16 and it still gives me a boost on bad days

huxception, answer to “What are some compliments that you have received or given that are unforgettable?” on /r/AskMen (22 points), 2018

Again, a compliment from the opposite sex seems worth more, at least for men. Perhaps because it signals sexual interest, which is an good position to be in.

Problem: These questions pose quite a selection bias: Nobody who has received a compliment and thought nothing of it bothers to write a reddit comment about that.