Zach’s car is in the garage, but he needs to be downtown for an 8:00 a.m. meeting. He asks his wife Yolanda if she can give him a ride. He knows that she doesn’t like driving downtown, especially in rush-hour traffic. When they arrive, he thanks her, adding: “I know it was a hassle for you to drop me off at my office during rush hour.”
Xander also has to be downtown first thing in the morning, and his car is on the fritz as well. His girlfriend Wendy agrees to give him a ride, even though it’s out of her way. When she drops him off, he thanks her by saying: “Thanks. I wouldn’t have made it to the meeting on time if you hadn’t dropped me off at the office today.”
We express our gratitude to show our benefactor that we value the relationship. But are all expressions of thanks equally effective at making our partner happy about the sacrifice they made? This is the question that University of Toronto psychologist Yoobin Park and colleagues explored in an article they recently published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.
Park and colleagues point out that expressions of gratitude typically take one of two forms. One way we say thanks is by acknowledging the cost incurred by our benefactor. In the example above, Zach thanked Yolanda by saying that he knew it was a hassle for her.
The other way we express gratitude is by pointing out how responsive our partner was to our needs. Above, Xander does this by telling Wendy he would never have made it in time without her help.
Which approach will make the benefactor feel better about the sacrifice she made? I invite you to ponder this question a moment by considering how you would feel in Yolanda’s and Wendy’s positions.
Park and colleagues also pondered this question, and they reasoned as follows: On the one hand, if you thank your partner for the cost they incurred, it reminds them that there’s now an imbalance in the relationship, and this leads to an uncomfortable feeling. On the other hand, if you express gratitude for their responsiveness to your needs, it lets them know they’ve done a good deed, which will boost their mood.
To test the hypothesis that highlighting responsiveness in expressing gratitude would lead to a greater increase in the benefactor’s mood compared to highlighting cost, the researchers invited nearly a hundred couples to take part in a two-week diary study. Every evening for 14 days, each partner separately responded to a short survey they received on their smartphone. If they reported that their partner had expressed gratitude for making a sacrifice that day, they went on to respond to follow-up questions about that event.
First, the respondents were asked how they perceived the expression of gratitude. In particular, the researchers are getting at the issue of whether their partner had acknowledged their responsiveness or the cost they incurred.
Next, they indicated their reaction to their partner’s expression of gratitude. In particular, the researchers assessed the degree to which the respondents experienced positive or negative feelings after being thanked by their partner.
After that, the respondents indicated their general level of relationship satisfaction. They also reported on how positive their mood was that day.
Finally, they responded to the question: “How costly was this compromise/sacrifice for you?” They indicated the perceived cost on a seven-point scale ranging from “not at all” to “a lot.”
Overall, the results supported the hypothesis. On occasions when respondents reported that their partner had thanked them for their responsiveness, they reported a more positive mood than when they’d been thanked for the cost they’d incurred.
Park and colleagues related these findings to what is already known about the dynamics of romantic relationships. Specifically, research has consistently shown that relationships built on an exchange of favors (“I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine”) are less satisfying than those based on responsiveness to each other’s needs (“Let me give you a back rub; you look like you need it”).
When we express our gratitude by acknowledging the cost of the sacrifice, we put both ourselves and our partner into an “exchange mode” of thinking about the relationship. This emphasizes the fact that the benefactor has lost something while the beneficiary has gained something, thus highlighting the feeling that the relationship is now imbalanced.
In contrast, thanking our partners for their responsiveness to our needs highlights the communal nature of the romantic relationship. Happy relationships are characterized by the desire of each partner to meet the needs of the other, trusting they’ll do the same when needed. Thanking our partners for meeting our needs acknowledges that they have done a good deed, and as a result, their mood is boosted.
Whether this same pattern of results would be found in expressions of gratitude between friends or family members is a question that awaits another research project. However, if the initial reasoning of Park and colleagues is correct, we can expect the results to be similar.
The data from this study lend support to the idea that expressions of gratitude that highlight costs can lead benefactors to feel an imbalance in relationships. In contrast, when we highlight our partner’s responsiveness to our needs, we boost their mood. And that in itself will have a positive impact on our relationship as a whole.
Facebook image: Dmytro Zinkevych/Shutterstock
Park, Y., Visserman, M. L., Sisson, N. M., Le, B. M., Stellar, J. E., & Impett, E. A. (2020). How can I thank you? Highlighting the benefactor’s responsiveness or costs when expressing gratitude. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. Advance online publication. DOI: 10.1177/0265407520966049