Pro-Social at Tufts?


This post was written by a student in last summer’s PSY 13 course, and is shared with the student’s permission…

I used to be involved with Tufts Free Compliments and after reading Chapter 11, specifically the bit about positive psychology, and emailing Professor Sommers about it, I decided to post about my experiences and observations on here. It’s important to note though that I’m no longer affiliated with the group and these are just my reflections two years after the fact.

I’m sure that plenty of you guys are familiar with TFC and what we used to do, standing outside Tisch complimenting passerby. I actually used to be the president of the club and was in charge of all sorts of things like setting up events and promoting the group on campus. I ran into some really interesting problems. The biggest one, and most notable was that there was a large group of students that hated us. I mean really hated us. I remember I was in Tisch one time doing homework and I overheard a group of people discussing how “creepy” and “weird” the group and the people in it were. Now we obviously didn’t think that, in our minds we were just outside having a good time and at the very least, trying to make people smile but what was most interesting to me, especially since starting this course is how a positive psychology group, one whose mission was to make people happy, could invoke such visceral reactions. It wasn’t just that one time I heard it; being creepy, non-genuine, and off-putting was a critique the group drew time and time again and is largely why we are no longer operational.

I think the answer is two-fold. First, our target group was students and students tend to be more stressed. It’s that whole “feel good, do good” and “feel bad, do bad” idea, that mood and stressors can affect and alter our behavior and opinions. Second, was the issue of anonymity. Few people know this but we did much more than just complimenting outside. We spent a lot of time coming up with other ways to increase the morale of campus with things like putting compliments in library books, drawing smiles in the snow, and things of that nature. When people knew it was TFC doing the event, the amount of negative responses was enormous. I even had people come up to me to tell me off in person. However, when our name wasn’t attached to the activity as with the compliments in books or putting balloons up on campus, the response was overwhelmingly positive. It seems that the action is not truly altruistic until we were able to separate the label of TFC from the positive psych action and people didn’t perceive those actions as helping or beneficial until the source wasn’t identifiable.

What do you guys think? As a member of the group, I think the experience was largely one of the better ones I had in college and while I personally don’t care what others think, I have to admit, I was always curious as to why the group was hated so much. On paper you’d think a club that’s purpose to make people smile was well received, just as you’d think that with 38 bystanders, Kitty Genovese would have been helped but as we’ve seen, that’s clearly not the case.

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31 Responses to Pro-Social at Tufts?

  1. Zihan Chai says:

    I think it is really interesting to see the different reactions people have depending on whether or not they know the TFC was behind the event. Perhaps the overjustification effect is helpful to explain the phenomenon here.

    The overjustification effect holds that when people think their behavior is driven by extrinsic factors, they underestimate the intrinsic ones behind their behavior. And I think when people saw the big TFC logo attached to a compliment, many could not help but to think that this is all part of an organized program to passive-aggressively make us feel good. When they think their “feel-good” is driven by an outside group, that they are being pressured to feel good, they tend to underestimate what they really feel about compliments.

    Personally, sometimes when I see the TFC compliments, I’d be skeptical, thinking “oh great, the Brave New World stuff all over again. Why can’t I just feel terrible about myself? I just don’t get all those people who are systematically unable to feel bad.” Terrible thoughts indeed, especially considering that the TFC people are doing all of these altruistically, but I do confess I have those thoughts. I doubt I would have the same thoughts when seeing an (anonymous) smiley face on snow.

    P.S. “Feel bad, do bad”??? Hmm. At least my 9th edition textbook says otherwise.

    • Daniel D says:

      I think it would be really interesting to hear more about the firsthand experience of people that are bothered by random acts of kindness when they know it’s coming from a group that’s purpose is to do acts like that. I don’t know if I’m convinced by your interpretation that people find it passive aggressive. I think there’s more to why people have such strong negative reactions to the idea of people being nice because they have to. The idea that it seems fake feels more on the right track, but as I said I’d be interested in more people’s first hand experiences with the matter.

      I had a phase where I’d give people “awesome cards” which were like business cards that just said “you’re awesome” on it. And I’d give one to a person when I saw them doing something awesome. For the most part, the strangers I gave awesome cards had really positive reactions, and I still believe in what they stood for. But from my friends and people closer to me, I got different reactions more along the lines of “why?” and “weird”. And ultimately I found myself agreeing with the negative reactions. It is sort of weird to approach people you don’t know and give them something from your wallet. I still have them just in case but I don’t generally hand them out as often. I think that what I learned from the experience is that there are times and places where certain actions are appropriate, and when you do something unexpected for its context, people usually have strong reactions whether negative or positive. And so I think that maybe when the TFC puts out random acts of kindness that are too overt, they breach what’s expected for the context and that can raise walls in people. So maybe it’s not the name connection that people were upset by, but rather the exhibitionism it entails. Whereas in smaller scale random acts of kindness, they don’t have your name connected and they both seem less self promotional and also are more acceptable in their contexts.

      Just my own 2 cents, I’d love to hear what other people think of that 🙂

      • Greg Lehrhoff says:

        Totally totally agree. Violating people’s schemas and scripts can easily elicit negative reactions. I’m thinking of Borat in NY. Everyone he approached wanted to punch him, even though he was being perfectly sweet (or at least the character was, maybe not the actor).

        You also make a really good point that breaking accepted norms can also elicit a strong positive reaction. Like I was at a party with kids from my high school a couple weeks ago and this girl came up to me just as she was leaving. I thought that had little interest in anyone but herself (so there was a mutual disinterest). But she was like, “Hey, I feel like we haven’t caught up in forever and I’m really curious what’s going on in your life. Do you wanna get lunch some time soon?”

        To clarify, I’m pretty sure she wasn’t asking me out– she just wanted to meet up as friends. But I was so taken aback. I was pretty much expecting everyone, especially her, to go along with the normal script for a party like this. You see people you once knew, say “oh my god it’s been forever!” and then you secretly have mixed feelings about their new haircut or their accomplishments in life. And then you leave without feeling the responsibility of seeing them again any time soon. But here was this girl, approaching me with genuine, kind sentiment! I would have felt kind of weird asking somebody to lunch like that, out of the blue. But it made me so happy! Happier than it probably should have made me!

        Just saying, sometimes it can be really off-putting to break the script, but sometimes it can be really cool.

    • tkolbj01 says:

      Although I definitely agree with the skepticism to me this seems more attributed to ingratiation gone awry than any sort of over-justification effect. When its from a group who’s JOB it is to make people feel better it feels completely insincere and the compliments don’t feel earned or out of the goodness of members hearts so much as they seem like they are trying to be liked. Anonymity makes the larger actions (balloons, secret compliments in books) more believable. It removes the benefit from the do-er and makes the action more altruistic were the compliments in person seem fake and self-beneficial (clearly trying to improve the impression that the Tufts Campus has with them).

      • Michael Rogalski says:

        I agree completely that a disingenuous compliment (or one that comes from a club that produces compliments as a mission) would mean very little to me. Come to think of it, even an anonymous compliment left in a library book or a balloon would mean very little to me because I cannot fathom how compliments of that nature could possibly be intentionally directed at me.

        From my perspective, the only way a compliment actually improves my self-esteem is if it is definitively directed at me and plausibly meaningful. Opening a book and reading “you have a nice smile 🙂 on a post-it” will have no bearing on my day because I received the compliment by chance. A toothless guy could have picked up this book just the same and received the same compliment! However, if someone I met at a study group approaches me afterwards and says “Hey Mike, you did a great job presenting this point about cognitive dissonance” or “You seem very smart” that’s a different story. These types of compliments are both directed at me personally and plausibly meaningful, because the person giving them had an experience with me and complimented something they noticed during that experience. This idea is why TFC failed- their compliments did not resonate, so they just came across as flimsy or disingenuous.

        • Katherine Rose Alpert says:

          This reminds me of reciprocal compliments. For instance, when someone says, “I love your shirt,” and you reply, “thanks, I love your shoes,” even if you mean it, the compliment loses some weight. Sincerity is key to compliments.

        • Meghan Wales says:

          I agree. I did not know this group existed on campus but I would have found it to be extremely annoying because I would have felt as though the compliment was more for the person giving it than the recipient. I also think that even erasing the group’s name from acts of kindness make it an altruistic act. Doing something nice for someone makes us feel good whether or not the recipient knows it is from us. I think it is not altruistic until it comes with some sort of cost for the complimenter.

      • I agree with you on the with you that the groups comments might seem misconstrued as dis-genuine by people viewing it as a requirement not as a spontaneous compliment. However, I wonder if true altruism should really come in to question here as we have seen it is usually not the case when someone helps. Maybe by witnessing a group member relieve their own stress through “selfish” intentions is what causes the hatred towards the group or maybe guilt is created in these individuals as they themselves are not engaged in prosocial behavior.

    • I think you are definitely correct in your assessment that the external explanation to the compliments being received in this situation make them come off as less sincere, but I don’t know if the overjustification effect quite fits here. The compliments aren’t being used as incentive to perform a task, so they won’t decrease that incentive. However, I think it may apply for the people giving compliments – if they are only giving the compliments for positive affirmation from others and from their club, then they will underestimate their own innate enjoyment of complimenting others in a more natural setting. Thus, they may be less likely to give a compliment in a setting that isn’t within their club; I don’t know if this is necessarily how that would turn out in real life, but the overjustification effect suggests that it is one possibility.

  2. This reminds me in a way of Tufts Compliments, a facebook page where you can message nice compliments about people on campus, and they will be posted publicly but anonymously. I think the idea is a bit better because it includes the same aspect of spreading positivity and making people smile, but they are directed compliments at a specific person (like what Michael said). The specific compliments that are directed at you and that are far less general often hold more weight, and the target’s friends often comment agreeing or sharing their own compliments on the person as well. At least in my conversations with people, this has had very positive feedback and has been accepted fairly well. The student’s comment about the fact that she enjoyed the experience rings true– perhaps this is where we might see someone benefitting by feeling good about themselves for making someone smile, or by trying to make campus a happier place. This doesn’t mean that what the student was doing was a bad thing at all, just that there are reasons other than altruism to engage in these activities.

    • Rebecca says:

      I agree that giving out compliments directed to specific people would be more effective at making people happy and bursting their self-esteem than TFC’s approach.

      In my high school, a few members of the senior class started operating a Facebook account similar to Tufts Compliments this year, which posts anonymous compliments that one individual writes for another specific individual on campus. Although some of the compliments are generic, many of them mention something distinguishing of the recipient of the compliment, such as “you are such a brilliant painter.” Let alone the distinctiveness of the content, the mere mention of an individual’s name makes the message much more likely to be perceived as genuine and special. The senior class also launched a school activity about spreading positive messages, which involves pieces of cute cards written with positive messages being passed around on campus. Those compliment cards (about 100+) were written by only five members of the senior class. Within a few days, most cards went missing; I’m guessing that many of them ended up in the trash cans. In this case, those compliments got passed around were produced in an unmindful and insincere way (although with good intentions), like the TFC.

      The perceived insincerity of those TFC compliments could also be explained by Kelley’s covariation model. The model suggests that when consensus and distinctiveness are low but consistency is high, we tend to make internal attributions for someone’s behavior. And this trend that leads people to make internal attributions is very obvious in the TFC case. Low consensus is manifested in the fact that most people would very unlikely to receive random compliments in daily life from strangers they do in front of the Tisch library. Low distinctiveness could be see through the fact that those TFC members compliments most people (if not everyone) that pass by the Tisch library. High consistency could be inferred from the assumption that each time one passes from the Tisch library in the presence of TFC members, he or she is likely to be complimented. Having checked all the theoretical boxes for them to make an internal attribution (given that we treat the TFC members as the “actors,” and those who are complimented as the “stimulus” that triggers the behavior of “complimenting others”), it is reasonable for people to feel that they are being complimented because of the TFC members’ eagerness to compliment just anyone, not because of any substantial aspects of themselves that worth celebrating.

  3. Rachel Lai says:

    I think TFC is a great idea conceptually, but its execution requires more thought and finesse than what was probably expected. Tufts is a diverse school with people involved in all sorts of different things, and it’s important to keep in mind that you never know what else is going on in other people’s lives. When I’m having a bad day or really preoccupied with something, I don’t want to talk to anyone. I try to walk to class without having to chat with someone I know or having to make small talk with a stranger. In these situations, I wouldn’t necessarily appreciate a stranger complimenting me. I wouldn’t be bothered by it either, but I would probably just brush it off as something insignificant and even a bit insincere. I know TFC had good intentions, but I think it’s important to remember the power of the situation. It can definitely work in the right context, but that in and of itself is difficult to find and maintain on a diverse and vibrant college campus.

    • I 100% agree. I have a good friend who has a lot of anxiety around social situations, and the anxious negative emotions surrounding being approached by a stranger, especially when she might be stressed and headed to study in the library, etc., would probably be far higher than any possible benefit to her in the situation. While it might help me to hear a stranger compliment me (if it was in a sincere way), she would definitely rather gain her positive parts of her day in other ways. It could even make going to places where they tend to be really intimidating for her, so thinking about this side of things really makes me believe in the importance of thinking through all the situations before doing something like this.

  4. Lucy B. Ren says:

    While I understand that TFC had completely altruistic intentions, I also understand the viewpoint of some of the students. Once the group has made it their job and duty to compliment strangers, I would view such a compliment as forced and perhaps, artificial. Compliments from complete strangers have a special quality to them, because they don’t HAVE to compliment you. It is 100% out of their own will. Once this becomes a job, however, it takes away from that aspect. In addition, compliments that are very generalized and don’t contain something unique about the person are less valued. I also think that this goes for the things around campus that TFC did that other people didn’t know- they thought that someone had taken the time to do something positive out of their own free will and spontaneity, rather than being assigned this planned out task.

  5. ahoi01 says:

    Although I didn’t know that this group existed at Tufts before reading this student’s post, I do remember people tabling outside of Tisch and CC offering compliments and kind words to strangers. To be honest, I thought it was bizarre, and I didn’t particularly like it. Granted, I never had a vitriolic attitude towards them, but I always found that what they were doing was really contrived, artificial, and self-serving. By standing in such a highly trafficked area and doling out compliments to anybody who walks by strips away so much of the sincerity of a typical compliment.

  6. Greg Lehrhoff says:

    I find it really interesting what people are saying about the legitimacy of the compliments that TFC was giving out. That they seemed like they were only really meant to benefit the giver, that the obligation took away the compliment’s effectiveness, that there was something offputtingly distant and overly general about some of these compliments. I think those are all totally legitimate points. I would probably be made more uncomfortable by people standing outside of Tisch than I would be made happy by their compliments. But I guess it’s better than, say, some kind of solicitor.

    Anyway, I wanted to bring up a similar type of organization/community called r/wholesomememes on reddit. The idea behind the group is essentially this: a lot of humor on the internet (and in general) revolves around negative things. Complaints, tragedies, annoyances, grievances. Humor can turn passive-aggressive with sarcasm or it can be used to put down certain individuals. WholesomeMemes goes for the opposite– memes, jokes, etc. that are unabashedly positive. On some level, it’s funny because you’re expecting a biting punchline, and then the joke takes an unexpected turn for the best.

    For me, I find the content uplifting just because it shows that there are still people out there thinking positive thoughts, believing good things, and behaving with kindness. It has shown me just how much of my day is spent talking and thinking about troubles and worries. I sometimes browse through r/wholesomememes right after I wake up just to get my spirits up for the day.

    So, to bring this back to the conversation, I think this is a really good way to raise people’s spirits. The content is (basically) anonymous, the presentation is unintrusive, and it doesn’t try to offer possibly disingenuous personal compliments– but instead, chases more of a universal compliment. Like a compliment to all of humanity.

    Maybe TFS could have tried something more like that?

    Also, these are just a few stray ideas that I wanted to get out of my head:
    -Maybe they could have done like student-to-student therapy? Obviously not for anything too serious which would warrant real therapy. But almost like a peer support group, where people could just get subtle grievances off their chests.
    -Voluntary homework help? Like just walking through someone’s homework with them or talking through the review for a test they were studying for. I don’t know, now these are starting to sound not as fun for the volunteering students…
    -Just someone who will hold you to it that you get work done? Who will sit with you in a quiet room and exert social pressure not to wander onto Facebook or whatever. Maybe they could time you, including 10 or 15 minute breaks every once in a while. I don’t know!
    -Getting students together with similar interests (but interests that are not so popular that they could start a club about it)

  7. I think that two aspects that distanced the particular group of students was the emotional distance and surprise that the TFC’s actions produced, which go hand in hand. Firstly, everyone has different construals for every situation, such as one in which you receive a compliment. For people who have been primed with thoughts to stay away from or avoid strangers, they may perceive the compliment as more awkward or even obtrusive. Additionally, this group of students could have been surprised the first time the TFC approached them, creating a negative impression due to the primacy effect. Therefore, they would feel more negative towards the TFC in the subsequent interactions.

    In addition, for strangers that you don’t know, there is little that can be said quickly in the form of a compliment, thus these compliments tend to be more generic and feel more fake or mass-produced. Therefore, students could be questioning the effectiveness of these compliments, even though certain students will enjoy a random compliment.

    • Aubrey Tan says:

      I totally see where you’re coming from regarding this approach. People tend to think that these compliments are more cliche since they are so generic. I think that the concept isn’t bad per se, but the way it’s implemented can use some work. You might be able to get away with it on a college campus since students tend to be more open regarding interactions with unknown people, but it wouldn’t work out well on the streets of New York city I’d expect.

  8. One reason that comes to mind for why some students may be opposed to groups like Tufts Free Compliments is that it becomes harder to make an internal attribution about a person’s kindness when we know they are part of a group whose purpose is to be kind. Rather than falling victim to the fundamental attribution error, it almost seems that I would be more likely to associate a group member’s kindness to external, environmental factors rather than personality.

  9. For me the sociological reason for the opposition to groups such as TFC seems to be deviance. Whenever I passed booths on campus giving out free compliments, TFC appeared to be awkward and forced in their interactions. While it seems weird to be opposed to people doing objectively nice behavior, doing so in a public and direct way seemed deviant. I am not sure what unspoken law of social behavior, TFC was breaking. But the way they openly compliment felt deviant and abnormal to me.

  10. The apparent sincerity and general goal of the TFC group seems good, but I can see why some students would get annoyed by it or question the authenticity of complete strangers offering such unwarranted kindness. Perhaps the students who made fun of the group just felt that the comments were disturbing to them when they didn’t want to talk or interact with others and were simply irked by that. Maybe the students who made fun were confused by the actions of TFC and jumped to the conclusion that something was “wrong” with the members because such behavior really is abnormal. Not in a bad way, it just doesn’t happen randomly in everyday life like that. Also, personally, I would not like to be the recipient of a compliment from a random stranger because it would mean they focused on me and drew a conclusion about me…if that makes sense. I am one of those people who prefer to blend in with the crowd and to be called out for something, even in a positive way, would make me uncomfortable. I am quite self-conscious and don’t like when anything about me gets analyzed. If any students who made fun had this kind of reasoning for doing so, I can understand. Laughing at and making comments about the other members of the group is unproductive but maybe they felt that they were, in a sense, also getting scrutinized.

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