People Underestimate the Effects of Gratitude

People aren’t always good at predicting the impact their actions will have on themselves and others. I wrote about one example earlier this week, where introverts tended to be overly pessimistic about how much they’d enjoy social interactions.

Another example comes from a study published this month in Psychological Science, this time on the topic of gratitude. We know that expressing gratitude usually has positive effects for everyone involved. But even though we know this in theory, it turns out that people still regularly underestimate how much of an impact expressing gratitude has on others.

Researchers at University of Chicago demonstrated this discrepancy by having people write letters of gratitude. When writing the letters, people were asked to predict how surprised, happy and awkward the recipients of the letters would feel. Then the researchers checked in to see how the recipients actually felt.

Overall, people writing the letters tended to underestimate how surprised and happy the recipients would be and to overestimate how awkward they’d feel. In other words, people repeatedly failed to realize how much of a positive effect the letters would have.

As you might expect, people who thought recipients would feel more awkward and less happy were less willing to express their gratitude. Even though expressing gratitude tends to be a win-win proposition, people might be hesitant to make it clear how thankful they are if they underestimate the positive effects that doing so will have.

The researchers point out that being able to make “wise decisions” depends on “an accurate assessment of the expected value of action.” Which, in turn, means that “underestimating the value of prosocial actions, such as expressing gratitude, may keep people from engaging in behavior that would maximize their own and others’ well-being.” So if you find yourself holding off on expressing gratitude because you think it’ll be awkward or you don’t think the other person will care, pause to consider whether you might not be taking full account of the impact your words will have.

Image: Flickr/Virginia L.