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.