The Science of Saying Thanks

Lisa Williams A few months ago, gratitude challenges were all the rage. Social media feeds filled with outward expressions of gratitude, lists of appreciation, and photos of ‘the small things’. The arrival of the holiday season has brought the next generation of social media-driven gratitude outpourings (see Facebook’s Say Thanks Campaign). This time of year, even our face-to-face interactions have a distinctly grateful tone. For many of us, Thanksgiving Day meals have a round-the-table tradition of saying out loud one (or more) things for which we are grateful.

However you might feel about these trends and traditions, science corroborates the benefits of expressing gratitude. Longitudinal, cross-sectional, and experimental data from individuals, couples, and even near-strangers suggests that saying ‘thank you’ serves to foster and strengthen social relations.Please do not reproduce without explicit permission

First, let’s take a look at romantic relationships. Individuals who express gratitude to their partners naturally or who are asked to do so for the purpose of research experience a number of benefits: boosts in relationship satisfaction, more comfort in voicing concerns about the relationship, and increases in perceived strength of that relationship. Some studies have even found benefits of hearing thanks from a partner (but some haven’t). Benefits of expressing gratitude in romantic relationships, whether for the thanker or the thankee, appear to be supported by the oxytocin system, a system related to social bonding in mammals.

In recent research, Monica Bartlett and I tested whether saying thanks might foster nascent relationships – that is, amongst previously unacquainted individuals. The first challenge was to create a situation in the lab where we could manipulate the expression of gratitude in a way that mimicked real life. We devised a cover story about piloting a new mentoring program run by the university. As part of the pilot, participants gave advice as mentors on a writing sample from a high-school student mentee – thus engaging in an action that might prompt gratitude in the mentee.

A week later, participants returned to the lab and received a note purportedly written by the high school mentee. The note either simply acknowledged the advice or also included an expression of gratitude. We next gave participants the opportunity to write a note to their mentee, and hence the chance to further foster the relationship by leaving their contact details. As expected, participants who had received a note expressing gratitude from their mentee were 50% more likely to leave their contact information for the mentee. In other words, expressions of gratitude for simple acts of kindness amongst strangers can kick start the formation of new social relationships.

Yet the question remains: does saying thanks on Facebook or cursorily at the Thanksgiving table also impact relationships? I can’t yet answer that question with empirical evidence. Yet, our study suggests that an expression of gratitude serves as a signal – a signal that conveys interpersonal warmth. It remains to be tested whether that signal is only relevant between a thanker and a thankee, or if overhearing thanks or seeing someone else’s gratitude campaign postings might invoke an affiliative response in us.

To our loved ones, the key appears to be how responsive the expression of gratitude is to the person being thanked. That is, a thank you that conveys understanding, validation, and caring is bound to be effective. When asked to thank one another in a lab setting, romantic partners who believed that their better half’s expression of gratitude was attuned and authentic experienced more improvements in their relationship over the ensuing six months compared to partners receiving less responsive expressions of gratitude. It’s likely that these same processes unfold with expressed gratitude amongst non-romantic familial ties.

So whether you celebrate American Thanksgiving, Canadian Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, St. Nicolas Day, New Year’s, and/or Festivus, it’s a good time of year to reflect on how and to whom you might express gratitude. Chances are, you and your relationships will benefit.

And thank you for reading.


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Their pain, our pleasure

Mina Cikara

Empathy is an early-emerging capacity that is fundamental to social bonding. In interpersonal contexts, people recognize others’ pain, experience congruent emotions, and often act to alleviate others’ distress. However, empathy is not a universal response. Consider for a moment: do you empathize with all people, all the time?

Though it is not often conceptualized as an intergroup emotion, empathy is reliably moderated by group membership and identification. People who are highly identified with their own groups often feel less empathy for people who belong to different groups. We call this difference the intergroup empathy bias. Indeed, dozens of studies have reported that people show decreased and sometimes absent physiological responses associated with empathy when witnessing out-group relative to in-group members in physical or emotional pain (see our recent paper for a review).kid

One key insight is that the absence of empathy is not antipathy: it is apathy. Failures of empathy may allow people to feel indifference towards out-group suffering, but should not promote active harm. A recent meta-analysis confirmed this, finding a very weak relationship between empathy and aggression. Therefore, more than the absence of empathy, our research examines the conditions under which people exhibit the exact opposite of empathy in intergroup contexts: pleasure in response to others’ misfortunes (Schadenfreude) or displeasure in response to others’ triumphs (Glückschmerz). We are interested in these emotions because they reliably predict endorsement of, and willingness to harm competitive out-group members.

In a recently published series of experiments with almost 500 participants, we found that creating two groups and putting them in direct competition with each other was sufficient to reduce participants’ empathy for out-groups and induce a sense of joy when members of the out-group suffered misfortune. In our experiments, we told participants that we were interested in assessing problem-solving in teams. Participants were promised $1 for their time, but they stood to double their winnings if their team won the problem-solving challenge. Participants were then randomly assigned to one of two novel groups — the Eagles or the Rattlers.

We then told participants they would have the opportunity to learn about the other players from both groups before completing the problem solving challenge. Participants were presented with 16 scenarios depicting positive (e.g., Bill found a $5 bill on the street) and negative (e.g., Brandon accidentally walked into a glass door) events in the lives of in-group and out-group members. After reading about each event, participants answered two simple questions: “How bad does this make you feel?” and “How good does this make you feel?”

The results indicated that participants experienced greater empathy (i.e., felt worse about negative events and better about positive events) for in-group compared to out-group members. Our participants also experienced greater counter-empathy (i.e., both Schadenfreude and Glückschmerz) for out-group compared to in-group members. When we included unaffiliated targets as a baseline, we found that intergroup empathy bias was driven by out-group antipathy (diminished empathy toward the out-group relative to unaffiliated targets), rather than extraordinary empathy for the in-group (feeling greater empathy for the in-group relative to any other group).

Given the serious negative consequences associated with intergroup empathy bias, we tried to design an intervention to restore empathy towards the out-group. We presented participants with cues that signaled reduced cohesion, or “groupy-ness”, within the two competing groups.

In this experiment, participants were randomly assigned to see different images of the social networks made up of the two teams.  Some participants saw an image of two segregated social networks indicating that members of the Rattlers and Eagles were closely connected to fellow in-group members but not out-group members (i.e., two small clusters far removed from one another: below left). Other participants saw an image of a integrated social network indicating that members of the Rattlers and Eagles were interconnected with one another (i.e., one large cluster: below right).


Participants who thought the two teams were interconnected with one another reported greater empathy for the out-group. Merely making people aware that the members of each group are not monolithic in their social connections may be one way to help restore empathy in intergroup conflicts.

Intergroup conflict is a multiply-determined phenomenon, with many causes and consequences. Our on-going research will test the conditions under which emotions like Schadenfreude lead individuals to commit harm, of their own volition, against competitive out-group members. Our hope is that a better understanding of all the mechanisms that promote intergroup aggression will inform best practices for defusing it.

-with Jay Van Bavel

Not everyone sees emotion like you do

Maria Gendron

If you have ever traveled abroad without speaking the language, or encountered someone doing so, you are probably familiar with the difficulty of communicating. In most of these instances, people will still try to get meaning across (and it can sure get weird). Unhelpfully, people will sometimes raise their voice or speak very slowly.  Perhaps more helpfully, people will sometimes attempt non-verbal communication. This might be as simple as a gesture (thumbs-up!), a facial expression (smile) or even a vocalization (laughter). But how much of the original intent actually comes across? People well versed in the ins and outs of “cultural competency” might be aware that overt gestures don’t always carry the same meaning across cultures. For example, a thumbs-up is a positive sign in the United States and parts of Europe, but is an offensive sign in other parts of the world like Iran and countries in West Africa. But might it also be the case that our facial expressions (frowns, scowls, etc.) and vocalizations (sighs, shrieks, etc.) also don’t translate?

The question of how much non-verbal behaviors (such as facial expressions or vocalizations) communicate across cultures has been a topic of scientific interest for many decades. Some researchers have proposed that the nuance of heartache or a deep-seated fear can be communicated non-verbally, regardless of whether the two people share culture or language. This is a universality view of emotion expression and perception, and is based on classic research conducted in the 1960s and 1970s that is taught widely in psychology and beyond. But newer research suggests that Western emotion categories such as anger and fear might not be as biologically basic as was previously thought. This research prompted my colleagues, Lisa Feldman Barrett, Debi Roberson, Marieta van der Vyver, and I to take another look at this question.

The challenge with testing the universality of emotions is that most people in the world are connected now. We are exposed to media from around the globe and there has been a particular proliferation of Western media outward. To be extremely meticulous in testing questions of universality, a small subset of researchers have opted to conduct testing in relatively “remote” societies. So my colleagues and I did just that. We traveled to a remote area of Northwestern Namibia, near the border of Angola to test people from the Himba ethnic group. The Himba are semi-nomadic pastoralists and exist largely outside the political and economic systems of Namibia. Key for us is that most people from the Himba culture are not exposed to other groups.testing3

What we wanted to know was simple: Do people from the Himba ethnic group perceive the same emotional message from Western facial expression and vocalizations that people tested in the United States do? What we found is that much of the emotional message is lost across cultures, but not all. Himba perceivers understood whether a Western facial expression or vocalization was signaling a pleasant (happy) or unpleasant (anger, disgust, fear, sadness) state. We also found that Himba perceivers could often understand whether someone was worked up or not (what we call “arousal” in the science of emotion). Himba perceivers tended to see facial expressions in their own unique ways, however. In a task where Himba perceivers were asked to sort pictures of facial expressions into piles by feeling, they tended to group faces into piles that were “behaving” the same way. For example, all the people who appeared to be looking at something were grouped together. Sometimes these people were making a Western expression of fear, but sometimes they were making a different Western expression. When Himba participants were asked to identify the meaning of voices, we found a similar pattern of findings.  The Himba perceived that vocal expressions meant that people were calling out for help, or playing. This research revealed that not only do non-verbal “signals” not have a preserved universal meaning, but the way people make sense of non-verbals varies culturally.  Whereas Himba perceivers were focused on behavior (they think someone is “looking at something”), perceivers from the United States focus on internal emotions (they think someone feels “happy” or “fearful”).

So what are the potential consequences of cultural differences in emotion perception? These findings certainly suggest that we should think twice about “importing” Western non-verbal behaviors into other cultural contexts and assuming they will “work”. While this may seem like a trivial example for those of us who don’t interact with people from a broad array of cultures often, let me remind you why this matters. To do that, I’ll leave you with this. The psychologist Triandis speculated that the start the gulf war was likely based on cultural misunderstanding of emotion, succinctly described below by Carnevale & Choi:

“In January 1991, James Baker, then the United States Secretary of State, met with Tariq Aziz, the foreign minister of Iraq. They met in an effort to reach an agreement that would prevent a war. Also present in the room was the half-brother of Saddam Hussein, whose role included frequent calls to Hussein with updates on the talks. Baker stated, in his standard calm manner, that the US would attack if Iraq did not move out of Kuwait. Hussein’s half-brother heard these words and reported that `the Americans will not attack. They are weak. They are calm. They are not angry. They are only talking.’ Six days later Iraq saw Desert Storm and the loss of about 175,000 of their citizens.”

How we perceive emotions in others could be the difference between peace and war.

 photo credit: Dr. Maria Gendron