For many of us, saying thank you is a simple fact of life: someone does a nice thing, you express your gratitude. A lack of thanks when you feel it is due can certainly leave you feeling irritated, but on the whole we rarely think about the practice beyond the fact that it’s both considered polite and that it feels good to thank or be thanked. Indeed, much research has suggested that expressing gratitude can lead to increased well-being and positive affect, including a rise in happiness, and increased ability to recognise and adapt to various situational demands.
But could giving thanks actually reinforce unequal power dynamics? The authors of a new paper published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin think so. They argue that expressing gratitude towards higher power groups can result in low-power groups ending up “pacified” and discouraged from advocating for their own interests, making saying “thank you” more problematic than we may have first assumed.
Inna Ksenofontov and Julia Becker from the University of Osnabrück designed several studies to test this hypothesis. In the first, participants were assigned to a low-power position as an “employee”. They were then asked to collaborate with another employee and a manager through computerised tasks, the completion of which would enter them into a prize draw. But the manager behaved unfairly, assigning himself easy tasks and giving employees those that were difficult or impossible to complete — meaning he kept the lottery tickets for himself.
At the end of the first set, the manager contacted the participants and offered to give them easier tasks in the next round. Participants in the experimental condition were given three response options, all expressing thanks (e.g. “thank you very much”); control participants were given neutral options (e.g. “I have read the message”). Participants then indicated how willing they would be to protest against the manager’s actions on the employees’ behalf.
Those who had to express thanks were less likely to confront their manager than those given neutral options, suggesting that the act of saying thank you had, in effect, pacified them.
These participants were either forced to give, or not give, thanks — but what about when they had a clear choice to say thank you? In the second study, voluntary expressions of thanks to high-power groups were measured, again to test whether they were negatively associated with intention to protest. In an online study, 125 participants were asked to imagine themselves interacting with a professor who had transgressed (by advising them to make changes to an assignment, but then grading them lower than expected) but then helped (by eventually giving them a higher score). They were then asked whether they would thank the professor or simply leave the classroom, and whether they would forgive the professor or admonish him.
The team found that 33.6% of participants said they would thank the professor, and again an analysis showed those who thanked him were less likely to complain about the professor’s behaviour.
And in the final studies, conducted online and in the lab, scenarios were created in which female participants had to decide whether or not to thank a high-power colleague who behaved in a sexist way, and indicate how likely they were to complain about this behaviour. Again, researchers found that expressing thanks motivated forgiveness, which in turn undermined intent to protest.
What this means, the team argues, is that expressing thanks can have a pacifying effect in situations defined by social injustice or inequality: by saying thank you, members of the lower-power group essentially “forgive” the high-power person and end up less willing to protest. This can be particularly striking in issues of human rights — the authors use the example of immigrants resisting demands to be “grateful” for citizenship, believing that doing so puts them at the mercy of higher power groups.
The research does have some limitations — the researchers didn’t look at what happens when low-power groups receive gratitude from high-power groups, nor did they analyse exactly why a person might thank someone in a position of power. As the team acknowledges, disadvantaged groups may use expressions of gratitude in attempts to advance their own status within a power hierarchy, so saying “thanks” may not always reflect a passive acceptance of the status quo.
What this study does make clear is that even those social interactions we take for granted can have different meanings and implications in different contexts. None of this is to say that we should stop saying thank you to each other — after all, it’s an important social tool. But thinking a little more carefully about what it means, particularly for disadvantaged groups, could prove to be more useful than you might first assume.