What Prevents People From Thanking Others
Mistaken expectations discourage people from showing appreciation.
Posted August 1, 2018
People do not always share the appreciation they feel for those they care about, but why not? Based on the results of a series of experiments, Amit Kumar and Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago have concluded that one reason is that we often underestimate the positive consequences of expressing gratitude.
What is gratitude? Robert Emmons, who has been researching gratitude for many years, gives the following definition:
First, gratitude is the acknowledgment of goodness in one's life … Second, gratitude is recognizing that the source(s) of this goodness lie at least partially outside the self. The object of gratitude is other-directed; one can be grateful to other people, to God, to animals, but never to oneself. This is one significant way in which gratitude differs from other emotional dispositions. A person can be angry at himself, pleased with herself ... but it would be bizarre to say that a person felt grateful to herself.
But feeling gratitude does not automatically result in the act of expressing it. Why? That is what the authors of the present series of experiments decided to investigate.
In the first two experiments, the researchers asked the participants to write letters of gratitude and to predict how the recipients would feel about these letters.
The results revealed that, one, writing the letters increased the senders’ positive mood; two, the senders underestimated the extent to which these letters would surprise the recipients and put them in a positive mood as well; and lastly, the senders overestimated how “awkward” the recipients would feel after reading the letters.
In the next two experiments, the researchers examined the relation between expectations about how the letters would be received, and the decision to express gratitude.
The data revealed that the participants showed a strong desire to communicate their appreciation only when they expected that the recipients would feel very positive (and not awkward) about receiving the letter of gratitude.
To explain the reasoning for the next set of experiments, it is important to note that previous research has shown that people often assess their own actions in terms of ability and competence, while others usually evaluate those very actions more in terms of intent and warmth.
Therefore, while people sending a letter of gratitude are likely preoccupied with finding just the right words to express their feelings (while anxious about coming across as incompetent or awkward), the recipients are often not focused on competence but on warmth and intent of the message that they have received.
So, in the fourth experiment, the authors tested whether there are differences between people who express and people who receive gratitude, in terms of how each group evaluates competence and warmth. The data revealed that recipients not only considered senders more warm than senders had anticipated but also evaluated senders as more competent.
Not surprisingly, the researchers’ last study confirmed that undue concern about one’s competence is indeed a barrier to expressing gratitude.
Social connections are valuable to us, not only for practical reasons but also because positive social relationships are essential to our mental health. One way to strengthen these connections is through regular communication of gratitude to people who have helped us and showed care and concern.
Previous research and these latest studies have demonstrated that there are a number of barriers to conveying appreciation:
1. Assuming that our gratitude is known
2. Expecting that in expressing our thanks we will come across as incompetent and awkward
3. Underestimating the positive impact of our expression of gratitude on the recipients’ mood
As Kumar and Epley note, “Miscalculating the positive impact of social connections on oneself, or on others, could keep people from being prosocial enough for their own well-being. Expressing gratitude may not buy everything, but it may buy more than people seem to expect.”
1. Kumar, A., & Epley, N. (2018). Undervaluing gratitude: Expressers misunderstand the consequences of showing appreciation. Psychological Science. doi: 10.1177/0956797618772506
2. Emmons, R. A. (2007). Thanks! How the new science of gratitude can make you happier. New York, NY: Houghton-Mifflin.