Group Favors Can Lower Gratitude
Receiving a gift meant just for us often makes us feel grateful. Maybe our best friend finds us a signed copy of our favorite book, or our spouse cooks us a special dinner. We feel grateful for positive, valued things that come from others.
But often, we receive things of value that are meant not just for us, but for many people. Perhaps a large anonymous donation enables our city to open a new library, or the company we work for treats all the employees to a lavish holiday dinner. We can feel grateful for our freedoms, our blessings, even our very existence—gifts that are not unique but given to many others. My research looks at whether we feel just as grateful for things given to us as a part of a group.
One possibility is that we feel more grateful for gifts that are given to many others. After all, a dinner made for 100 people is a bigger gift than the same dinner made only for me.
But it’s also possible that we feel less grateful for these group gifts. If someone buys us our favorite book, it shows they were thinking of us, which would make us feel special and grateful. Instead, if someone gave us a free book that they were handing out to many people, we might feel less special, and also less grateful, even for the same book.
In my first study, participants read stories about receiving either a personal favor or a group favor. For example, they were asked to imagine that their professor postponed just their exam, or they imagined that they postponed the exam for the entire class. Participants ended up feeling more grateful for the personal favor, compared to the group favor. People rated the favor as larger and less selfish when the favor was done only for them, compared to when it was given to the entire group.
A follow up study that told people either that the professor was being selfish (postponing the person’s exam in order to get better evaluations) or unselfish (postponing the person’s exam because they were sympathetic) suggested that people were more grateful for a personal favor if they thought it was unselfish. Given that there was no difference between personal and group favors in this study, that indicates that perhaps the intentionality behind the favor—“I’m doing this for me” versus “I’m doing this for you”—could be a driving factor.
These findings might not be the same everywhere, however. Culture might make a difference. The participants in my studies were all American college students. People from collectivist cultures, who value their groups more highly, might react more positively to group favors. Even in individualistic cultures like the U.S., there may be some times when we value group favors. I’m running some new studies looking at whether people might be more grateful when the group being helped is important to them, like their family or a close friend group.
But if you happen to be in charge of a classroom, it might be smart to keep these studies in mind. Helping out the entire class might lead to less gratitude than you would think.
For Further Reading
Li, Y., Luo, L., & Fu, J. (2019). Benefactor intention, perceived helpfulness, and personal responsibility influence gratitude and indebtedness. Social Behavior and Personality: An International Journal, 47, 1-15. https://doi.org/10.2224/sbp.7481
Tsang, J., (2021). (Un)special favors: Gratitude for group-based benefits. The Journal of Positive Psychology. 16 (1), 27-37. https://doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2020.1716051
Tsang, J., & Martin, S. R. (2017). Four experiments on the relational function of gratitude. The Journal of Positive Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2017.1388435
Jo-Ann Tsang is Associate Professor of Psychology at Baylor University. Her research interests include gratitude, forgiveness, psychology of religion, and prejudice.