Underestimating the power of gratitude – recipients of thank-you letters are more touched than we expect

By Christian Jarrett

We’ve all been there: feeling so grateful to a friend or colleague that we hatch the idea of sending them a thank-you message. But then we worry about how to phrase it. And then we figure it probably won’t mean much to them anyway; if anything it could all be a bit awkward. So we don’t bother.

Does this sound familiar? According to a pair of US psychologists, a common failure of perspective means that a lot of us underestimate the positive impact on others (and ourselves) of expressing gratitude, meaning that we miss out on a simple way to improve our social relations and wellbeing. Based on their series of experiments in Psychological Science, Amit Kumar at the University of Texas at Austin and Nicholas Epley at Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago conclude that “expressing gratitude might not buy everything, but it may buy more than people seem to expect”.

The research involved hundreds of participants, some recruited to take part at the psych lab and others online via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk survey website. The format through some of the experiments was broadly similar. Participants were asked to write a letter of thanks via email to someone who had touched their life in a meaningful way, including expressing what the person had done and how it had affected their life.

Across these experiments, the participants were asked to make various predictions about how the recipient would feel and perceive them. Meanwhile, the researchers made contact with the recipients to find out how they actually felt and what they actually thought.

The senders of the thank-you letters consistently underestimated how positive the recipients felt about receiving the letters and how surprised they were by the content. The senders also overestimated how awkward the recipients felt; and they underestimated how warm, and especially how competent, the recipients perceived them to be. Age and gender made no difference to the pattern of findings.

Other experiments showed that these same misjudgments affect our willingness to write thank-you messages. For instance, participants who felt less competent about writing a message of gratitude were less willing to send one; and, logically enough, participants were least willing to send thank-you messages to recipients who they felt would benefit the least.

Kumar and Epley believe that this asymmetry between the perspective of the potential expresser of gratitude and the recipient means that we often refrain from a “powerful act of civility” that would benefit both parties.

A similar dynamic could also play out in other situations. “If people engaging in prosocial actions are more concerned about competence than those benefiting from them, then our experimental results should be just one example of a broader tendency,” the researchers said.

A methodological limitation is that the researchers were unable to reach all letter recipients and it’s possible those less impressed by the thank-you note were less willing to take part in the research. However, the available data don’t back this up – for instance, the mis-predictions of the expressers of gratitude were just as great in the experiments in which more recipients took part (therefore reducing the risk that only happy recipients had participated).

These are intriguing findings that complement other work by Epley and colleagues showing how our fear of awkwardness can lead us to misjudge what is in our own best interests, such as underestimating how much we will enjoy interacting with strangers.

Undervaluing Gratitude: Expressers Misunderstand the Consequences of Showing Appreciation

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

40 thoughts on “Underestimating the power of gratitude – recipients of thank-you letters are more touched than we expect”

  1. Pingback: UK News Desk
  2. Interestingly, I wrote a brief email some three weeks ago to Christian Jarrett which contained the words “I have read several of your articles and I just wanted to say thank you for their clarity. I am not a psychologist but you always help me to get the overall picture, and give me enough to research further. Keep going!” It was not acknowledged.
    Physician, heal thyself.

  3. I have always shown gratitude. I brought my daughter up to write thank you notes. I am blogging about my journey with terminal illness, and always look for that for which I am grateful.

  4. Funny true story that is playing out right now, which ahows the serious consequences of not saying thank you and ignoring your employees.

    I received this article on the morning of the 18th July. I work for a major UK retailer, at a store where we worked nightshift. For years, our store has been in decline, due to ever tightening staff numbers, a huge physical work load and poor morale, due to a complete lack of managerial interest in people. For months a situation had arisen, whereby an incompetent person had been appointed as a manager, passing over a very young, but proven candidate, who had been actually doing the job as a section leader, but doing the job of the nights duty manager.

    People began to get physically injured due to this incompetent manager, not observing workload at all and then allocating work at an unsafe level, compared to the other girl who would either automatically help or provide support or a replacement. After raising it with every manager we could as a shift, we were at breaking point. One member of our crew was forced to work in such poor health, that we expected him to either collapse and/or die on shift. He has repeatedly begged to step down from being section leader, but was told he would have no job if he did, just to blackmail him into staying in role.

    The work load was typically 5 x 12 hour shifts, during which time hand working between 5 to 10 tonnes and unloading 15 to 20 tonnes of deliveries. Daily sleep on retail nightshift tends to be 3 hrs between shifts. Both section leaders were in a poor state of health due to the relentless shifts. Add to this the incompetent new manager worked at a far slower rate and gave herself an easier workload, but the section leaders always worked at full capacity, often to cover for the manager.

    I raised the health concerns and competency problem with every level of management, so they had full knowledge. At every stage of escalation nothing was done. Despite independent reports coming to management from both section leaders, they totally denied that they had made an error in appointing the unqualified, inexperienced manager. We all worked really hard to get her help and support, but the friends in high places who had appointed her, without first testing her in role, as was the process beforehand, just let her destroy the morale of the shift and 6 key people were lost from an already pressured shift, half of our regular main heavy workers.

    When this article came through, I had an autistic meltdown and wrote everything on social media. As a result i was instantly dismissed by my employer. I am happy that it has brought this issue to the fore, but am very sad to have been fired for whistleblowing. My autism is in the process of being diagnosed, but no doubt my inability to keep control on my temper, a lack of awareness of consequences during meltdowns, has combined with this article to cost me my job and quite possibly my life, after i sell all my possessions and decide if i have the will to stay. The job was my entire support network, the person who was passed over, being my line supervisor, completely understands my condition and makes life workable. Due to this injurious situation, she too was forced to leave, along with 4 others in 2 weeks, which is what set me up for a very costly meltdown, but one which was directly for the health of the shift.

    It is so ironic that receiving this article about saying thank you, triggered a series of events that led an already alienating employer, to express further, their unappreciative disdain for their good workers and sack one of their best most loyal workers, for breaking the standards of the company, when in fact I was acting morally in order to potentially save a life and certainly more injuries. They can follow arbitrary socially constructed social media rules, but when a long term personnel problem is voiced after having been raised at every level, they think that breaking a technical policy which hurts no-one, in fact, is more of a priority to enforce, than protecting the health of their workers, just astounding.

    This business is headed up by a store manager who we believe has serious mental issues, having taken an average of 3 months to acknowledge those he even worked closely with, in an office, not even good morning. In my case, it took 6 months before he spoke 1 word directly to me. No hello, thank you or good morning for section leaders or managers who had done 15 hrs of back breaking exhausting work, after only getting 3 hrs sleep and coming in early. Imagine their surprise when our previous manager left in disgust. Then one section leader, then another, then 6 colleagues in a couple of weeks, after having lost 10 others over the course of the previous year. This is what having managers with no apparent emotional capacity, does to a business’s human capital investment. Say thank you and listen or it’s only a matter of time before it goes out of business.

  5. To me it’s funny and at the same time weird that a common practice taught in Latin America for generations has to be “demonstrated” by science and experiments to north Americans.

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