Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Feeling Grateful and 'Paying it Forward'

Does feeling grateful make us more likely to act like our benefactors?

We are constituted so that simple acts of kindness, such as giving to charity or expressing gratitude, have a positive effect on our long-term moods. The key to the happy life, it seems, is the good life: a life with sustained relationships, challenging work, and connections to community. Paul Bloom

Of all the positive emotions that humans experience, it's gratitude that seems to play the strongest role in fostering how we interact with other people. Defined as "the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness," gratitude can be reflected in many different ways. Showing kindness towards someone in a social situation not only helps ensure that act of kindness will be returned, but it can also make people more inclined to "pay it forward" and help someone else entirely.

According to the "find, remind, and bind" theory of gratitude first proposed by psychologist Sara B. Algoe, gratitude plays a role in cementing the social bonds we have with other people. As one example, feeling grateful to someone for a kind act causes us to have more powerful feelings about that person and want to spend more time with him or her. This leads people receiving the act of kindness to be more inclined to interact socially with their benefactor and increases the likelihood of developing a high-quality relationship. Algoe even suggests that gratitude can alter our basic perception of other people, whether it be a total stranger or someone with whom we already have a strong relationship. Being grateful makes us feel more inclined to pay that favour back, either directly or indirectly.

Gratitude is also the cornerstone of most world religions. Expressing thanks to God is the central theme of most Christian, Jewish, and Islamic prayers and gratitude is viewed as a valuable human trait in Buddhist, Hindu, and Native American Spiritual traditions as well. Not only is gratitude deemed to be essential to being a good human being, but being called an ingrate is regarded as offensive in just about any society.

Still, gratitude is not the same thing as indebtedness, in which people feel that they are obliged to repay the favour, either through financial compensation or some other material benefit. In many cases, this feeling of indebtedness often makes people uncomfortable enough to want to avoid the person they feel they owe while gratitude makes us more likely to seek out our benefactor and spend time with them.

But there is another kind of behaviour that is often linked to gratitude: mimicry. People who feel grateful for a kind act tend to mimic the behaviour of their benefactor. This kind of mimicry can either be deliberate, because they see their benefactor as a good role model, or completely unconscious, in which they are unaware that they are doing it. Research into the kind of behavoural mimicry linked to gratitude suggests that it helps build a stronger relationship between grateful people and their benefactors since it reinforces the positive feeling that can lead to friendship.

A new research study published in the journal Emotion takes a look at behavioural mimicry and gratitude. Written by Lile Jia and a team of fellow researchers from the National University of Singapore, the study used 101 university students (55 female) who were seen in the National University's psychological laboratory where they took part in the experimental study.

In the first phase of the experiment, students were given an opportunity to win chips and, apparently because of random chance, would wind up with fewer chips than another subject (actually a researcher posing as a subject). This was followed by a gratitude condition in which the researcher passed on a large number of chips to the subject, along with a written note that said, "I saw that you didn’t get a lot in the last few rounds. That must have been a bummer.” This made it appear that the researcher was trying to help the subject. In the non-gratitude condition, the subject received the same amount of chips though it appeared to be due to random chance.

In the mimicry task that followed, subjects were briefed on a new task along with either the researcher who had given them the chips or a neutral confederate. While carrying out the experimental task (discussing a picture that was shown to them), the confederate would perform specific behaviours such as neck or knee-rubbing. The subjects were monitored on a video camera to see if they mimicked the other person's movements during the task. In the debriefing that followed, subjects were questioned to ensure that they had no suspicions about what the experiment was actually about.

Results showed that participants in the gratitude condition were more likely to copy the body movements of the confederate who helped them than the non-gratitude participants. There was no other sign of mimicry aside from what was linked to gratitude. This finding seems to support the find, remind, and bind theory of gratitude by showing that mimicry, whether conscious or unconscious, is an important step in building a quality relationship with someone to whom people feel grateful.

Although this is an artificial experiment that attempts to replicate something that mostly occurs outside the laboratory, the study does seem to highlight that unconscious mimicry is strongly linked to gratitude. This is an important finding since previous research has mostly focused on how gratitude affects conscious behaviour. Still, more research needs to be done to see if this kind of mimicry can make people more likely to do kind acts for strangers as well.

Along with being highly prized, gratitude has also been linked to mental health and well-being. Positive psychologists have increasingly viewed gratitude as something that needs to be encouraged to help boost our sense of optimism and happiness. As this new research study shows, feeling grateful can have a far more profound impact on how we behave than we even realize.