Why we underestimate the power of expressing gratitude

Alice G. Walton | Dec 04, 2018

Expressing gratitude improves the well-being of both the giver and the receiver, but people often fail to share their gratefulness—in part because of a miscalculation about how the receiver will perceive it, find University of Texas’s Amit Kumar (a former postdoctoral researcher at Chicago Booth) and Booth’s Nicholas Epley

Kumar and Epley asked participants in a study to write a letter to a person to whom they felt grateful. In each letter, the writer explained what the recipient had done and how it had proven beneficial. Each writer was also asked to predict how surprised, happy, and awkward the recipient would feel. The researchers then contacted the people who received the letters to find out how they actually felt.

Participants tended to underestimate how surprised and happy their gratitude would make others. They also overestimated how awkward others would feel. 

“Expressers recognized that their recipient would feel good, but recipients still felt even better than the expressers expected,” Epley says. Letter writers also predicted that receiving a note of gratitude would be awkward, but that didn’t turn out to be the case. 

The expected awkwardness may hold people back from showing appreciation, however. In another experiment, the researchers had participants think of five people to whom they were grateful, reflect on their experiences, and rate how likely they would be to express their gratitude. They also rated how they expected their would-be recipients to respond. 

Participants’ likelihood of expressing gratitude was positively correlated with how happy they predicted the recipients would be and negatively correlated with their prediction for how awkward recipients would feel. 

Thus, miscalculating responses may prevent people from expressing gratitude. And it could thwart other prosocial, or socially focused, acts across many domains, the research suggests, as it may keep people from engaging in other behaviors—such as sharing or volunteering—that would be good for themselves and others. “When people systematically undervalue the positive impact that their prosocial acts can have on others,” says Epley, “they may not be social enough for both their own and others’ wellbeing.”