I came across a study where people were given the choice between receiving five dollars in cash or a complement, and the majority of the people asked accepted the complement. The intrigue of this study is not that people declined the money, because five dollars amounts to just over a gallon of gasoline, but the power of a complement.
The theory behind the study is that the striatum area of the brain reacts the same way no matter the stimulus. Without getting into a detailed anatomy lesson, the striatum is the area of the brain which is activated by stimuli associated with reward. This stimulus activates the release of dopamine which is responsible for sending messages through the brain which allow us to acquire new behaviors. Simply put, we do something well, receive a reward, and do that action again so that we can be rewarded.
If you think about the development of a human being, we use complements on our youth frequently and usually without thought. We attach “good job” to just about anything a child does or shows you they can do. For some of us this is because we want to recognize the child for attempting new skills, and other times it is just out of habit. During our childhood we will do just about anything to get a complement because it means, 1) we are being noticed and our ego is fed, and 2) we are gaining approval from those we wish to impress.
As we enter adulthood we have the same need for our ego to be fed and to gain the approval from those we wish to impress, but a simple complement without meaning overtime does not resonate the same as it did when we were children. The obligatory “good job” feeds our ego to a certain point, but a specific complement detailing what was done to receive the accolades is far more satisfying.
As we seek to empower those we associate with we need to understand that a complement, while powerful in its generic form, will never facilitate behavior change in the same manner as a sincere complement. In sincerity we are able to genuinely pinpoint what we are recognizing, therefore creating a greater anatomical response and a greater desire to achieve the behavior recognized.
In one of the many areas where childhood and adulthood share common bonds is in our need to be recognized. Recognition validates our efforts no matter what age we are, and as anatomy dictates our behavior patterns through such recognition, we have to be specific in what behaviors we are recognizing and rewarding no matter what age the beneficiary of our complements.
“Good job” is the equivalent of a complement amounting to five dollars. If this study was offering $100 or a complement, then I’m sure more people would have taken the money. The goal in using complements is to place the value of the recognition we give so high that money is not a part of the question.