Gratitude May Increase Self-Control

A new study suggests that people who feel grateful resist the urge to cheat.

Posted Oct 01, 2019

"gratitude and rust" by shannonkringen is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
Source: "gratitude and rust" by shannonkringen is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Gratitude has many benefits. When you’re feeling down, it can help you to feel connected to others who have helped you, and that can make you more resilient. That is a big reason why so many people keep a gratitude journal and why self-help programs like the 12-step programs encourage people to be grateful for the positive things other people have done for them.

Gratitude may also give a boost to people’s self-control and make them less likely to give in to the temptation to cheat. This possibility was explored in a paper by David DeSteno, Fred Duong, Daniel Lim, and Shanyu Kates in the July, 2019 issue of Psychological Science.

In one study, participants doing a study online were asked to think about memories in their life. One group was asked to write about a time they were grateful. A second group was asked to write about a time they were happy. A third (control) group was asked to describe a typical day. Participants rated their levels of various emotions including happiness and gratitude. As you might expect, the people who wrote about a time they felt grateful experienced more gratitude than did the people who wrote about happiness or a typical day.

After that, participants were told that they would be taken to a third-party website where a coin flip would determine their compensation. They would be paid more if the coin landed on heads than if it landed on tails. In fact, that third-party website was programmed by the experimenters. Each coin flip was random except the first one, which always came up tails.

Participants were then taken back to the experiment, where they reported whether they should receive the lower or higher level of payment. Because the website always landed on tails, any participant requesting the higher level of payment was counted as having cheated.

In the conditions in which participants wrote about their typical day or their happy memories, about half of the participants requested the higher level of payment. In the gratitude group, about a quarter of the participants requested the higher level of payment. A statistical analysis suggested that people’s feelings of gratitude were a good predictor of whether someone selected the appropriate level of payment for the study. A second study with a different measure of cheating led to a similar pattern of results.

This study suggests that gratitude makes people less likely to cheat. The study didn’t explore exactly why gratitude decreases cheating behavior, but this work fits with studies suggesting that gratitude increases people’s sense of obligation to others. For example, feeling grateful increases the chances that people will pay debts they owe to others. This sense of social obligation may also make people more likely to act fairly, because fairness generally benefits all members of a group—even when it does not benefit a particular individual directly. Although this speculation is reasonable, further research is needed to better understand the ways that gratitude influences cheating.  

References

DeSteno, D., Duong, F., Lim, D., Kates, S. (2019). The grateful don't cheat: Gratitude as a fount of virtue. Psychological Science, 30(7), 979-988.