Backhanded Compliments: How Negative Comparisons Undermine Flattery

63 Pages Posted: 23 Aug 2019

See all articles by Ovul Sezer

Ovul Sezer

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Emily Prinsloo

Harvard University - Business School (HBS)

Alison Brooks

HBS Negotiations, Organizations and Markets Unit

Michael I. Norton

Harvard Business School - Marketing Unit

Date Written: August 20, 2019

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 (Study 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.

Suggested Citation

Sezer, Ovul and Prinsloo, Emily and Brooks, Alison and Norton, Michael I., Backhanded Compliments: How Negative Comparisons Undermine Flattery (August 20, 2019). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3439774 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3439774

Ovul Sezer (Contact Author)

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

United States

Emily Prinsloo

Harvard University - Business School (HBS) ( email )

Soldiers Field Road
Morgan 165A
Boston, MA 02163
United States

Alison Brooks

HBS Negotiations, Organizations and Markets Unit ( email )

Soldiers Field
Boston, MA 02163
United States

Michael I. Norton

Harvard Business School - Marketing Unit ( email )

Soldiers Field
Boston, MA 02163
United States

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