The secret recipe for motivating employees, as Science of Us has previously written, is a combination of compliments and pizza: Feed the hungry masses, and then say nice things about them as they chew. People tend to work harder when they feel appreciated, which explains the compliments. And as for the pizza — well, pizza is a tangible form of appreciation that also happens to be delicious.
But according to a study recently published in the Journal of Behavioral and Experimental Economics, compliments in particular aren’t just motivation for the people receiving them — they can also have a powerful effect on the bystanders, the ones who watch their peers earning praise while they’re left by the wayside.
The study authors ran their experiment on a group of 300 undergraduate students who had enrolled in different 15-person sections of the same class. In eight of the sections, the professors made a show of praising the top performers on a midterm exam in front of their classmates; in the rest, they returned the tests without publicly commenting on anyone’s grade. When the next midterm rolled around, lower-scoring students who had previously seen their classmates recognized — specifically, those who had fallen just short of the top tier — ended up significantly improving their scores, while their counterparts in the control group saw no difference between the two tests. Notably, the same was true of the students who did make the cut: Receiving praise from the professor didn’t make it any more likely that they would do better on the second midterm than they had on the first.
The reason, the researchers argued, has to do with the idea of praise as a setting of standards: “Student performance is influenced not only by personal benefits, such as grades or passing an exam, but also by the existing performance norms,” co-author Nick Zubanov, an economics professor at the University of Konstanz in Germany, said in a statement. In other words: The students who earned compliments had already met the standard, and therefore didn’t have much incentive to surpass it; those who had narrowly missed the cutoff, on the other hand, saw the compliments as a push to get them up to the baseline. It’s worth noting, though, that we still don’t know whether pizza would have the same effect on those denied a slice.