An Attitude of Gratitude Is More Than Just a Platitude

April 5, 2023 By Katherine Bowers, burtonc@darden.virginia.edu Katherine Bowers, burtonc@darden.virginia.edu

It may be a cliché, but showing a little genuine gratitude goes a long way and even creates strong bonds within groups, according to research from University of Virginia Darden School of Business professor Ayana Younge and colleagues.

The feelings don’t need to be directed at anyone in particular, Younge said. They just need to be seen.

“Gratitude may help strengthen multiple relationships within a social network directly and simultaneously,” Younge and three co-authors write in “A New Perspective on the Social Functions of Emotions: Gratitude and the Witnessing Effect,” published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

In eight experiments, Younge and her colleagues – Sara B. Algoe of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; Patrick C. Dwyer of Indiana University and Purdue University; and Christopher Oveis of the University of California, San Diego – demonstrated that gratitude benefits not only the person who expresses gratitude and the person who receives the thanks, but also those who witness the interaction. They found that people who saw expressions of gratitude between others were more likely to act warmly and generously toward both the person who expressed the gratitude and the one who received it.

“In a time in which people feel social bonds have become frayed by economic, political and other social pressures, this research shows just how much social currency gratitude carries,” Younge said.

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Gratitude doesn’t need to be flowery or overly demonstrative to be powerful. In their first three experiments, the research team conveyed gratitude via a simple comment bubble on a document with tracked changes. “Thank you so much for catching these typos!” the note read.

After seeing documents with gratitude expressions from one worker to another, the study participants were more likely to take the extra step and proactively correct typos, too, though the task they were asked to do was to simply underline and bold useful sections of a movie review – not to make corrections, which represented “above and beyond” effort.

As organizations look for ways to engage workers and spur them to make discretionary effort, showing gratitude seems to create high payoff with minimal effort.

Gratitude also fast-tracks trust and affiliation, giving one the desire to connect with the grateful person, Younge’s research shows.

In another experiment, subjects watched videos and then were asked to write to the person in the video, expressing a positive personal experience of their own. Study participants who witnessed gratitude in the video shared more personal and emotional messages to the original speaker than those who watched videos in which the speaker spoke calmly but did not explicitly express thanks.

Younge and co-authors interpreted such writings as “a bid for intimacy” that would set the stage for friendship and goodwill.

“This speaks to the power of gratitude in interpersonal dynamics. A simple ‘thank you’ is a stronger facilitator of relationship-building behaviors than general positivity,” Younge noted. Citing earlier research by UNC’s Algoe, her mentor, Younge also emphasized that “the ‘active ingredient’ in gratitude is the other-praising language.”

This work suggests new possibilities for gratitude as a positive force within group dynamics, both socially and professionally. Younge suggested expressing gratitude publicly, and sincerely, to a new or less-well-connected guest or colleague early on.

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“If we want to increase positive perceptions of someone who is ‘new to the crew,’ expressing gratitude to them will allow others to form good first impression of that person and perceive them as people they, too, might want to develop a strong relationship with,” Younge said.

Expressing gratitude may also inspire positivity and reflection and help new members of a workplace team build credibility and make it easier for others to collaborate with them in future efforts.

“Amid the chaos we face, both in our daily grind and in our society, we all need someone to enrich our lives,” Younge said. “We need that high-quality partner – a friend, a colleague, a romantic partner, a family member – to settle us, support us, de-stress us. Even when we travel through darkness, gratitude can be a vehicle to get us to our destination because it brings our positive relationships to light.”