Blog #58 – New insights on gratitude
Long-time readers of this series will be aware of the link between gratitude and emotional well-being. In the past, we have highlighted a number of approaches supported by peer reviewed research which have pointed to the potential benefits for both parties in any such exchange, i.e., the person expressing gratitude and the individual on the receiving end.
Like any branch of science, research in psychology is an ongoing process. Rarely, if ever, will research into any one topic or phenomenon reach a formal end, as that would suggest we have learned all that there is to be learned about it. More often, the research endeavour continues indefinitely because even as we learn more about a topic, that in itself can raise more questions or suggest further related strands of inquiry. Such has been the case as it relates to psychology and gratitude. Far from calling a halt to research in this area after Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough published their initial 2003 paper highlighting the benefits of the counting blessings approach (elaborated on in Blog #10), more attention was then directed towards what came to be recognised as fertile ground.
Fifteen years on, research into the effects of gratitude is ongoing, and fresh insights are continuing to make their way into academic literature. One such new paper, published online by Psychological Science recently, highlights how a tendency to underestimate its positive impact on recipients can make would-be expressers of gratitude less likely to do so in everyday life. As authors Amit Kumar and Nicholas Epley state, the net effect of this is to deny both parties the opportunity to maximise their emotional well-being, as we know that gestures of gratitude can be highly beneficial to the expresser as well as the recipient.
Kumar and Epley describe a series of experiments they undertook predicated upon the initial idea – based on existing published work in the area – that “people expressing gratitude would underestimate how surprised and positive recipients would feel after receiving a gratitude letter but overestimate how awkward recipients would feel.”
The core of the approach was to ask participants to write letters of gratitude and predict how the recipients would react. The researchers then compared those expectations with the actual responses of the recipients. They consistently found that recipients reacted more positively than the expresser anticipated, with more positive surprise and less awkwardness, with anticipated awkwardness one of the key factors in making people less likely to follow through with a formal gesture of gratitude.
The authors refer to an “egocentric bias” as being at play here that prevents us from properly anticipating how expressions of gratitude will be received, and because of that bias, we are then less likely to reach out and thank someone for whatever positive contribution it is that they have made to our lives. The logic of this contention is that if we were more skilled at recognising how expressions of gratitude are received, then we would be more likely to take the time to express gratitude to those in our lives that merit it, with well-being related benefits likely to flow for all concerned. Instead, somewhat tragically, because we tend to overestimate how awkward a recipient might feel and/or underestimate the positive impact of the gesture, we are less likely to take the time to make meaningful gratitude gestures, thus depriving ourselves of the well-being benefits of expressing gratitude and others the benefits of being a recipient.
It appears to be one of the unusual quirks of the human mind that we find it difficult to truly place ourselves in someone else’s shoes and anticipate their reactions. We also seem to somehow think we are fundamentally different from others in our own reactions, in that, presumably, we – as the research indicates – enjoy and derive emotional and mood-related benefits from being the recipient of sincere and formal expressions of gratitude, and yet, as this paper suggests, at the same time it can be so difficult for us to imagine that others (at least some others) might react in the exact same way.
Another finding noted here is that the expectation of awkwardness can influence the way in which people go about expressing gratitude, leading them to ‘play it safe’ by opting for more distant means of communication, i.e., written versus face-to-face. The logic of doing it this way is that a written expression of gratitude minimises potential awkwardness, whereas a face-to-face interaction, if the expresser anticipates awkwardness in response, would feel undesirable. The problem with this strategy, as pointed out by Kumar and Epley, is that text-based approaches do not always elicit the desired response; so, the risk of awkwardness is reduced, but so too are the potential benefits of expressing gratitude in the first place, with a reduction in perceived warmth part of what is going on here. As the authors write: “The problem is that text-based media do not appear to communicate one’s sincere intention, positive emotion or deliberate thought as clearly as voice-based or face-to-face media.” In other words, nothing communicates gratitude quite as clearly as telling someone exactly how you feel to their face. Then there is no room for doubt or misunderstanding. Of course, that means removing the ‘safety net’ that written communication can represent.
Again, why people imagine that others might react badly to the kind of gesture that they themselves most likely have always welcomed points to the complexity of the human condition. Perhaps the best way to sidestep this tendency is to ask yourself how you would feel if you were the recipient of gratitude, as opposed to going along with might be an instinctive (and perhaps not entirely rational) defence mechanism. Of course, that might be easier said than done, but as with much mental change, the first step has to be awareness that a beneficial change can take place.
Dr. Mark Barry
Mark Barry was awarded a PhD by University College Cork in 2015 for his research into adolescent well-being. He has lectured psychology at UCC since 2013 and is also a freelance writer.