What to Do With People Who Don’t Say Thanks
New research on gratitude training shows how even an ingrate can change.
Posted Feb 12, 2019
You’ve gone out of your way to help someone you don’t know all that well, but have always liked. Expecting gratitude for your kindness, you instead get a complaint. This person you helped feels that you didn’t actually do quite enough, and accuses you of only looking out for your own best interests. Perhaps, instead, this person becomes angry, stating that the help wasn’t needed, and that you’re being patronizing. The act of kindness on your part could have involved the simple gesture of lending a hand while this person tried to juggle an armful of shopping bags or providing more substantial help, such as a loan of $100. In either case, it’s clear your gesture didn’t produce the anticipated outcome of a simple “thanks.”
Some people just say thanks for everything, such as “Thanks!” at the end of an email or text regardless of the content of the message. However, expressing this superficial and even automatic type of apparent gratitude probably doesn’t strike you as all that sincere. When people show true gratitude, they have to go farther than just saying the word.
Ruppin Academic Center’s (Israel) Pinhas Berger and colleagues (2019) suggest that people who don’t express gratitude are missing out on an important potential source of fulfillment. As they note, gratitude “correlates with positive feelings, prosocial behavior, and physical health and can enhance well-being” (p. 27). The Israeli research team distinguishes between “state” and “trait” gratitude. In state gratitude, you’re thankful in the moment, but you’re not necessarily a particularly grateful person in general. In trait gratitude, you’re almost always a gratitude-expressing person. It’s trait gratitude, Berger et al. note, that corresponds to the benefits of higher well-being and overall happiness. Turning this around, it’s possible your friend is usually quite happy to offer thanks for one of your simple acts of kindness, but for some reason doesn’t in this one particular instance. However, maybe this person is just the type of individual who never says thanks, but instead expects others to show kindness as part of an overall entitled approach to life.
A trait should theoretically not be changeable, but the Israeli researchers believed that it might be possible to provide the stimulus for people to become more grateful with the right type of intervention. Previous research on gratitude interventions has produced mixed results, but Berger and his colleagues suggest that the researchers carrying out these interventions failed to distinguish between gratitude toward people (interpersonal gratitude) and gratitude for “simple pleasures,” or good things in life (non-interpersonal gratitude). Perhaps, they theorized, a gratitude intervention could work to increase trait gratitude for the interpersonal type, or people’s existing relationships, if the intervention focused on thanks toward people. Non-interpersonal gratitude, instead, could be best promoted with a non-interpersonal gratitude type of training. Berger et al. then went on to hypothesize that they would be able to increase trait gratitude if the intervention and outcomes matched. In other words, people should feel more grateful toward simple pleasures if they were prompted to do so, and grateful toward other people if the intervention was aimed in that direction. The authors also believed that any type of gratitude intervention would increase the positive effect experienced by participants.
The 150 participants in the study, consisting primarily of young adults, were assigned to one of five interventions lasting for three weeks. Those in the interpersonal gratitude condition received daily reminders to list three things involving other people for which they were grateful. In the non-interpersonal gratitude condition, participants noted three things not involving other people for which they were grateful. In the third condition, participants wrote three letters, one each week, expressing gratitude toward a person who deserved thanking. Doubling up on the gratitude intervention, people in the list and letter condition completed the requirements of listing and writing letters involving people to whom they felt grateful. Finally, in the control condition, people recorded one event per day in which they felt a positive emotion and one involving a negative emotion.
These interventions were clearly of an intense nature, and as a result, the researchers had lost 60 participants before the study was finally completed, leading to the final number of 150. The non-completers reported fewer negative emotions than the completers, so the researchers controlled statistically for this difference in the remainder of the analyses. At the outset and completion of the study, all participants completed questionnaires assessing interpersonal gratitude, non-interpersonal gratitude, general trait gratitude, life satisfaction, experience of depressive feelings, and positive and negative emotions. Three months after the completion of the intervention, participants responded to the same questionnaires, therefore allowing the researchers to examine the immediate and longer-term effects of their intervention.
At the outset of the study, people in the various conditions showed no significant differences in their levels of trait gratitude (both interpersonal and non-interpersonal), as you might expect. However, the findings didn't support the idea that gratitude type needed to match for the intervention to work. Although the hypotheses weren’t supported overall, the good news from the study was that any type of interpersonal gratitude intervention produced increases in this trait, and that writing letters expressing gratitude toward others increased both types of gratitude. In other words, as the authors concluded, “interpersonal trait gratitude may change more readily than non-interpersonal trait gratitude” (p. 33). Furthermore, in terms of well-being, all interventions produced increases in life satisfaction and decreases in negative emotions. It feels good to say thank you, a finding consistent with earlier gratitude intervention studies.
If you can change what should be a stable trait with as simple an intervention as having people engage in daily gratitude exercises toward other people (rather than toward life in general), this means that the people who never say thank you aren’t so hopeless after all. It’s possible that no one ever taught them to stop and consider the help that they receive from the people in their lives, so they’ve come to take it for granted. It’s also possible that they’re high on entitlement, and they expect to have others go out of their way to offer assistance. You’re not going to be able to assign them to an intervention where they are prodded to think about the daily acts of kindness other show toward them. You can’t confront them, especially in public, and demand that they thank you. Like the researchers in the Israeli study, you could look at some form of more private gratitude intervention in which you provide, in a nonthreatening way, opportunities for these people to offer thanks, even for simple things.
To sum up, don’t despair with people who don’t know how to say thank you. Shaping gratitude, even in ingrates, may be possible with patience and a little bit of gentle instruction. The chance to learn to say thank you may eventually provide its own source of fulfillment that will build on itself over time.
Berger, P., Bachner-Melman, R., & Lev-Ari, L. (2019). Thankful for what? The efficacy of interventions targeting interpersonal versus noninterpersonal gratitude. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science / Revue Canadienne Des Sciences Du Comportement, 51(1), 27–36. doi: 10.1037/cbs0000114