Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Jul 10, 2019

Gratitude Makes Us Care

by Jo-Ann Tsang
A little hand gives a twig of cherry blossoms to an adult hand

You may have heard that gratitude is good for you. For example, keeping a gratitude journal – a daily list of the things you are grateful for -- can increase personal happiness and life satisfaction. Gratitude is also good for our relationships. It helps relationship partners feel closer and happier with each other. To look at the effects of gratitude more deeply, my research is about when and why gratitude helps us care about other people.

Although research on gratitude is encouraging, we need to be careful when asking people questions about positive concepts like gratitude. Think about it—how likely is it that people would admit to being ungrateful? For example, have you ever said “thank you” for a gift that you secretly did not like, pretending to be grateful when you really weren’t? People often behave similarly in psychology studies.  If researchers ask them to rate how grateful they are, they might be reluctant to admit that they don’t feel much gratitude. Asking people how they feel is not always the best way to measure gratitude.

How do we get around this problem? One way is to see if people’s grateful behaviors match what they say they are feeling. Think about the most recent time you felt touched by a thoughtful gift. You probably said, “Thank you,” but you may not have just stopped there. We often want to do something to express the depths of your appreciation. Gratitude can lead not just to grateful words but to grateful actions as well. Grateful people will “walk the walk.” This is why I started studying helping behavior and gratitude. I felt that observing people’s helpful reactions to a favor would give me better insight into their grateful feelings.

My students and I were interested in several questions about gratitude. First, we wondered if gratitude is affected by  characteristics of the “giver.”  Do we feel less gratitude toward people who are very different from us than toward people who think like we do? We also wondered if the intention of the giver was important. Do we feel grateful toward people even if we suspect they helped us for selfish reasons?

To answer these questions, we convinced research participants that they were exchanging raffle tickets with a person in another room. Some people found out that the other person had similar tastes to their own in books, movies, and political beliefs; others were told that the other person  had very different tastes and beliefs. We found that, when the other person gave them a lot of raffle tickets, participants felt grateful and returned the favor, and that it did not matter whether or not the person was similar to them. So, personal similarity did not increase gratitude.

In a second study, we again told participants that another person gave them raffle tickets. Some participants read a note that we told them was from the person saying that the other person was  trying to be helpful. Other participants read a note in which the other person selfishly said, “Now you owe me.” People who received tickets from the helpful giver felt more grateful compared to people who received tickets from the selfish giver. However, whether the giver seemed to be helpful or selfish, participants were equally likely to return the favor. In this case, the intention of the giver influenced participants’ experience of gratitude, but not whether they returned the favor.  

But why do people act gratefully? Are we grateful for selfish reasons, or do we sometimes return favors because we care about the happiness of the giver? One selfish reason why we might express gratitude is because we think appearing grateful might make the giver  more likely to help us again in the future (no one likes to help someone who is ungrateful!). Another selfish reason for gratitude might be to look good to other people.  Even if we aren’t thankful for a gift, we might say “thank you” and return the favor because we don’t want to appear ungrateful. However, it’s also possible that sometimes we are grateful for altruistic reasons—we just want to make the giver feel good.

To test these possible motivations for gratitude, my colleagues and I told some participants that the person who had given them raffle tickets would have another chance to give them more tickets. Other participants were told that their partner would not have another chance to help them. Even when they were told that the giver would not be able to help them again, participants still felt grateful and returned the favor, suggesting that their gratitude was unselfish rather than motivated by the hope for future help.

But wait--we might still be acting selfishly when we thank someone who can’t help us back. We might thank them because we want them to think we are a grateful person.  In another study, some participants were told that even if they decided to return the favor, the other person  would not know that the raffle tickets came from them. People who thought the other person did not know the tickets would come from them did decrease the number of tickets they gave, so their generosity was affected by their motive to look grateful. Even so, people who received a favor still gave the person more raffle tickets compared to people who did not receive a favor.  Some people want to help those who are nice to them even if their help is anonymous. 

What do these studies say about gratitude in the real world? Gratitude is a social lubricant that takes good deeds and makes sure they continue. Gratitude can be expressed to people who seem very different from us. It can help us overcome our selfish tendencies, encouraging us to help others even when there’s nothing in it for us. This, in turn, might lead to more gratitude, with a potential for an upward spiral of good deeds. So go ahead and say “thank you” and help increase the cycle of care.

For Further Reading:

Tsang, J., & Martin, S. R. (2017). Four experiments on the relational dynamics and prosocial consequences of gratitude. The Journal of Positive Psychology.

Jo-Ann Tsang is Associate Professor of Psychology at Baylor University. Her research interests include gratitude, forgiveness, psychology of religion, and prejudice.

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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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