Grateful People Are More Likely To Obey Commands To Commit Ethically Dubious Acts

By Emma Young

Gratitude is widely regarded as a positive emotion. When we feel grateful, we are more helpful, generous and fair to others — findings that were supported by a 2017 meta-analysis, which concluded that gratitude is important for building relationships. But now a new study in Emotion suggests that gratitude has a dark side. Specifically, people who felt more grateful were more willing to accede to an instruction to prepare as many worms as possible for grinding to their death. As Eddie M. W. Tong at the National University of Singapore and his colleagues write: “The findings suggest that gratitude can make a person more vulnerable to social influence, including obeying commands to perform a questionable act.” 

The team started with a study of 96 student participants, who individually recalled and wrote about either a happy event or an occasion on which they’d felt grateful (or their morning routine; an emotionally neutral event). After then rating their current feelings of gratitude and happiness, each participant was led to a coffee grinder and 20 little cups, each of which contained a live mealworm. The experimenter — a final year student who kept things formal and avoided small talk — switched on the grinder, to demonstrate that it worked, and said: “What I want you to do now is to pour as many worms as you can within 30 seconds into this grinder to grind the worms.”

What the participants were not told was that a stopper was inserted part way down, so that the worms could not drop to the blades. (“No worms were harmed,” the team notes.) Anyone who objected was “sternly” instructed to continue with the task. (Across four studies with a total of 623 participants, only one refused to insert any worms; all participants were fully debriefed afterwards.) The team found that participants who’d reported feeling more grateful packed in more worms than those who felt happier, suggesting that it was gratitude, specifically, rather than feeling some kind of positive emotion, that increased the number of worms they were willing to slaughter. 

In subsequent studies, the team modified the experiment, though the worm-grinding element stayed the same. They found that participants who were made to feel more grateful to the experimenter specifically (by being informed that the experimenter had picked a desirable rather than boring task for them to complete), were also willing to harm more worms. However, feelings of admiration for the experimenter made no difference to the number of worms sent to their doom — so admiration for an authority figure did not seem to be playing a role in driving the participants’ obedience.

A final study suggested that people who feel grateful feel a stronger desire to keep their relationships harmonious — which can explain why they are more likely to obey other people’s requests. Some participants who’d been induced to feel gratitude were also told that while social harmony is important, other things should sometimes take priority. This reduced the number of worms that they put in the grinder.

Of course, gratitude-enhanced obedience could be a good thing. A grateful and more obedient child would be more likely to obey a parent’s request to clean their bedroom, for example. But if the request — or command — is immoral (or even just questionable), then greater obedience is clearly undesirable.

Earlier studies have found that a desire to affiliate with others does encourage us to be more accommodating of other people’s wishes. “However, the current findings go beyond prior literature by showing gratitude facilities obedience and consequently may contribute to repugnant actions that violate moral values,” the team writes. (When questioned afterwards, almost all the participants reporting believing that the worms really were going to be ground, they note.)

How might this translate into the real world? As the team suggests, it’s possible that an extremist group or gang that provides a sense of belonging or physical protection to a new recruit may gain that individual’s gratitude — which could then increase their willingness to obey a morally questionable command. Whether or not they would actually obey a command to go so far as to hurt another person as a result of this gratitude is a different matter. “However,” the researchers write, “minimally, the studies might indicate that gratitude can render one more likely to commit small, harmful acts perceived as trivial on command.”

Gratitude facilitates obedience: New evidence for the social alignment perspective.

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest