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Why Some People Are Afraid of Praise

13 March 2022


Joachim Krueger :
Praise, like a gift, is a double-edged sword. Praise can hurt, and the pain is all the more sharp because it is unexpected and poorly understood. Folk psychology is not attuned to this. It treats praise like sex or money. More is better. Marginal returns diminish, but the concave utility curve never arcs back to the x-axis of indifference. So bring it on! Let us bask in the sweet glow of social approbation!
Often this works fine, were it not for the nagging exceptions. In earlier essays (Krueger, 2020a and 2020b) I discussed some of these, such as praise-induced choking, inferences about one's own low ability (when praised for the performance of trivial tasks), or the revenge of the regression effect (where the high performance you were praised for is followed by mediocre performance). These examples bring out the context-depended toxicity of praise; what's left to be discussed is personality, culture, and the conundrum of self-praise.
Julia Reichenberger at the University of Salzburg, Austria, has reviewed evidence linking the trait of Fear of Positive Evaluation (FPE) to the more general trait of social anxiety (see also Fredrick & Luebbe, 2020, for a quantitative meta-analysis). Reichenberger & Blechert (2018) make two important observations: First, FPE is distinct from FNE (Fear of Negative Evaluation), and second, both fears are a form of social anxiety linked to status concerns. Social evaluation, it seems, necessarily highlights the target person's standing in the social hierarchy; it may simply note this standing, but it might also question it. As social status is a utility as sensitive as sex and money, it can easily arouse anxiety.
Reichenberger observes that people high on the trait of FPE infer from praise that expectations about their future performance have been raised, and this induces fear inasmuch as the person doubts they are up to meeting those expectations. This is why they may be looking for ways to undo the unwanted implications of praise. High-FPE people feel less pride than others do after being praised. As displays of pride signal to the self and to others that the person happily accepts the kudos, the deprecation of displays of pride is a reasonable defense tactic. As this might turn out to be insufficient, high-FPE individuals can also engage in displays of submission, such as verbal apologies, gaze aversion, or leaving the room. If high-FPE individuals stick around to debate the matter, they may seek to disqualify the validity of the praise, e.g., by attributing their fine performance to external factors, such as help from others. More generally, FPE is correlated negatively with self-esteem, self-compassion, and other indicators of psychological well-being, which may simply be due to the fact that FPE is a facet of neuroticism. Reichenberger notes that high-FPE individuals wish to avoid being socially conspicuous, which is a general theme in social anxiety. The fear of not being able to meet raised expectations, though important, may not be necessary for the trait to show itself.
Cultures differ in how much self-promotion they encourage or even demand. The difference between individualist and collectivist cultures (Triandis, 1996) is a rough way to make sense of this. The United States is usually seen as the paragon of an individualist culture, where self-sufficiency, self-esteem, and self-enhancement are praised. Collectivist cultures are more diverse, particularly in the degree to which they rely on and enforce social hierarchies. Some of these cultures emphasize the emotion of shame as a social regulator (e.g., Japan). It seems like a good hypothesis to expect that collectivist cultures, and particularly those banking on shame, produce people with FPE. Being praised, and being praised too much, raises the threat of social disruption. The receivers of praise react like the high-FPE subjects in Reichenberger's research, but then again, they may not be called upon very often to do so because the purveyors of praise also know that praise should be given sparingly in their cultural context.
Our quote at the top of this post is a nod to the Protestant-Prussian tradition of understatement. Understatement discourages, even pre-empts, praise, perhaps on the notion that when great success finally comes, well-deserved praise will be most valuable. For lesser Prussians, who could not aspire to Count Schlieffen's exploits, the mandate of "Achieve much, avoid the limelight, be more than you seem" is tied to the Prussian virtues of duty, prudence, loyalty, and precision. It's an impressive set of virtues, but one looks in vain for joie de vivre.
Those who are not saddled with the self-binding strictures of praise aversion are free to give their chutzpah the run of the house. One of the complexities of Ashkenazi Jewish culture is that it encourages self-mockery and assertive self-promotion at the same time. Any student of Larry David's comic genius is familiar with this dynamic. When self-promotion and self-enhancement are encouraged and expected, all goes well for the self-promoter who can back up the hype with deeds. Yet, self-promotion unleashed and unedited can result in awkwardness that could make Tony Robbins blush. People in this vein can sometimes pat themselves on the back enough to dislocate a shoulder.

(Joachim Krueger, Ph.D., is a social psychologist at Brown University who believes that rational thinking and socially responsible behavior are
attainable goals).

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