Compliments may not pay the rent, but according to new research, they help improve performance in a similar way to receiving a cash reward.
Researchers recruited 48 adults for the study who were asked to learn and perform a specific finger pattern (pushing keys on a keyboard in a particular sequence as fast as possible in 30 seconds). Once participants had learned the finger exercise, they were separated into three groups.
One group included an evaluator who would compliment participants individually; another group involved individuals who would watch another participant receive a compliment; and the third group involved individuals who evaluated their own performance on a graph.
When the participants were asked to repeat the finger exercise the next day, the group of participants who received direct compliments from an evaluator performed significantly better than participants from the other groups. The result indicates that receiving a compliment after exercising stimulated the individuals to perform better even a full day afterward.
According to Professor Norihiro Sadato, the study lead and professor at the National Institute for Physiological Sciences in Japan, “To the brain, receiving a compliment is as much a social reward as being rewarded money. We’ve been able to find scientific proof that a person performs better when they receive a social reward after completing an exercise. Complimenting someone could become an easy and effective strategy to use in the classroom and during rehabilitation.”
The researchers had previously discovered that the same area of the brain affected in this study, the striatum, is activated when a person is rewarded a compliment or cash.
Why might this happen? Odd as it may sound, the answer is probably closely related to the function of sleep. Researchers theorize that complimenting someone’s efforts acts as a catalyst for better “skill consolidation” during sleep. To account for the sleep variable, researchers in this study kept close tabs on the duration and quality of sleep of the participants. From this and previous studies, it seems as though praise provides the right memory boost for the brain to more efficiently consolidate learning while we’re snoozing. Receiving a cash incentive appears to trigger the same effect.
The practical takeaway: if you’re in a position of authority (manager, teacher, etc), be sure to use compliments (and/or spot bonuses) as a means to encourage learning new skills. You may find that your underlings come back the next day with surprising improvements.