Frank Flynn: Gratitude, the Gift that Keeps on Giving

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Frank Flynn: Gratitude, the Gift that Keeps on Giving

Research findings suggest that when helpers are thanked for their efforts, the resulting sense of being socially valued is critical in encouraging them to provide more help in the future.

Fall 2011 Prosocial Behavior Column

In this quarter’s column, we discuss research showing that expressions of gratitude motivate others’ prosocial behavior. When helpers are thanked for their efforts, they experience stronger feelings of social worth, which inspires them to engage in further helpful acts. In short, gratitude proves to be the gift that keeps on giving because it makes others feel valued.

Individuals often withhold help because they are uncertain about whether beneficiaries will appreciate their assistance. Expressions of gratitude can signify that a beneficiary values, needs, and accepts one’s assistance. Previous research has shown that grateful feelings enable people to savor positive experiences, cope with stress, and strengthen social relationships. A disposition toward gratitude is also associated with higher levels of subjective well-being, demonstrating that counting one’s blessings can increase positive emotions and health.

What hasn’t been so clear is exactly how beneficiaries’ expressions of gratitude affect helpers and motivate other acts of generosity. In a study published last year in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers Adam Grant and Francesca Gino set up four experiments looking at how feelings of personal competence and perceptions of being valued resulting from being thanked play into this dynamic.

Experiment 1 involved participants editing a student’s job application cover letter, receiving either a neutral or grateful email message from the student, and then choosing whether to help that individual on another letter. Experiment 2 examined whether participants would help a different beneficiary after they were thanked for helping the first student. Experiment 3 looked at how an annual giving director’s gratitude toward fundraisers influenced further behaviors in raising money to benefit a university. Experiment 4 returned to the cover letter assistance task, but the gratitude message was delivered or withheld in an in-person interaction. Participants were measured as to how effective they felt they were at the requested task, as well as how valued they felt.

All four experiments showed that participants who were thanked were far more willing to go the extra mile and either help with a second cover letter when asked or make more fundraising calls without being asked. In the first two experiments, a mere expression of thanks more than doubled the likelihood that helpers would provide assistance again (from 25 to 55 percent, and from 32 to 66 percent). In the third experiment, gratitude produced more than 50 percent increases in the number of calls that the average fundraiser made in a single week. In the fourth experiment, a single expression of gratitude led to an increase of 15 percent in the average amount of time spent helping with a second cover letter.

But the unique aspect of the study is it teased out the causal factor motivating such giving behavior. In all four cases, surveys revealed that it was feeling socially valued rather than feeling more competent in the task that inspired more prosocial behavior. Although gratitude expressions increased people’s feeling of self-efficacy, only social worth explained the effects on subsequent altruism and motivation.

These findings suggest that when helpers are thanked for their efforts, the resulting sense of being socially valued is critical in encouraging them to provide more help in the future. Gratitude expressions spill over onto other beneficiaries as well, suggesting that one can spark a chain of prosocial behavior with a simple thank you. Overall, the research affirms our general intuition –– that giving thanks can have important implications for encouraging actions that promote cooperation. Clearly, a little appreciation goes a long way.

More groundbreaking research about prosocial behavior will come in the Winter 2012 quarter.

“A Little Thanks Goes a Long Way: Explaining Why Gratitude Expressions Motivate Prosocial Behavior,” was authored by Adam M. Grant of the University of Pennsylvania and Francesca Gino of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. It appears in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2010.

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