Researcher imagines a world without gratitude

By Michael R. Malone

Researcher imagines a world without gratitude

By Michael R. Malone
To better understand the purpose of gratitude, a University of Miami psychology professor conjured up a world devoid of this emotion at the root of healthy relationships—and the centerpiece of one of our favorite holidays.

For research exploring the evolutionary function and role of gratitude, Debra Lieberman, a professor of psychology in the University of Miami College of Arts and Sciences, and fellow investigators applied a novel approach: What would a world devoid of gratitude be like? What would we be missing?

It would be a strange world indeed, they surmised.  

“What if we took away the expectation of gratitude, the ability to generate it or even notice it, plucking the entire notion from our minds—how would that affect us?” Lieberman and the team pondered. “What we’d be missing is the opportunity to realize the benefits that others offer and the capacity to forge and form cooperative relationships.”

The Thanksgiving Day holiday has its genesis in a time when it might have seemed that gratitude had indeed been “plucked” from the national psyche. At the height of the Civil War in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln officially proclaimed the last Thursday in November to be a “Day of Thanksgiving and Praise” in hopes that such a recognition might help restore “peace, harmony, tranquility, and union” to the devastated nation.

Debra Lieberman
Debra Lieberman

Lieberman and her team approached the subject from an evolutionary perspective, seeking to understand how gratitude functions within individuals and how it might be programmed or activated.

“There are many ways in which you can understand gratitude. You can explain it in terms of chemical states in the brain, how it feels, how it’s used, the expressions, words, and gestures that denote it,” Lieberman explained. “We want to know its function—that is, why it evolved in the first place.”

In that regard, the team developed an information processing model and gratitude scale to gauge the degree to which individuals—based on expectations and beliefs relating to talent and prestige—are prone to this universal emotion.

“Gratitude is activated when you detect that someone is delivering a benefit that exceeds your expectation. It’s the system that communicates that you found what they did to be of benefit. ‘Hey, I really appreciate that. And it could be great if you’d keep doing it. And maybe I’ll be likely to return some benefits downstream,’ ” Lieberman said. “So, basically, it’s a positive reinforcement of beneficial types of behaviors. Of course, this isn't what's consciously going through our minds when we experience gratitude—it just feels good.”

Lieberman noted that expectations and familiarity often show diminishing returns. The more you expect people to value you, the harder it is for them to exceed this threshold. 

“For instance, you typically hold high expectations for how much family value you and so it is harder for them to exceed those expectations and trigger gratitude. I expect my parents, my siblings to value me so when they don’t call, I’m like, why the heck haven’t you called? In fact, if they don’t call (say on my birthday), my interpretation might be that they don’t value me very much and may lead to anger—the opposite of gratitude. But when they do call, I’m not necessarily grateful to the point of gushing gratefulness because this is the type of behavior I simply expect of them,” she pointed out.

Gratitude really hits paydirt when we engage with strangers and non-relatives.

“Motivationally we just feel ‘Hey, that person did something nice or said something nice to me,’ so there’s a sense of gratitude because we have potentially identified someone who values us, making them of high value,” she added.

Many acts or services not intended as any type of exchange can also elicit our sense of thankfulness.

“Military people are thanked all the time, even when there’s no clear reciprocal altruism taking place. This is likely because their sacrifice and duties happen to benefit us all and we want to say, ‘Thank you,’ ” Lieberman pointed out. In the same token, certain competencies—someone is an especially good cook, does a neat trick, spots snakes quickly or is a good navigator and escorts us back to camp safely—prompt a grateful response.

From the research, Lieberman has been especially intrigued by the kinds of information we need to track in order for gratitude to function in the wa y she suspects. Specifically, she is interested in how we assess the social value of other people in our world and how that changes with each interaction.

“Internally, I have a representation of how much you value me—it’s like a baseline or the current level—and then any action that you perform, imagined or real, is compared against that baseline,” she explained.

If the interpretation is that the new act indicates you value me more than the baseline level, for example if you have gone out of your way to get me a desirable vanilla latte, then my sense of gratitude will increase. If the act indicates that you do not value me as much as I expected, e.g. you have intentionally knocked over my vanilla latte, then my sense of anger will increase. In this way, gratitude and anger are opposites, but both are based on how I expect you to treat me, she expalined. 

These internalized expectations of value make all the difference, the research is revealing, and are indicators of whether people are prone to gratefulness—or anger.

“If you’re the type of person that believes you should be valued, for example if you’re high status, formidable, attractive, have a high opinion of yourself, then it’s going to be really hard for anyone to exceed your expectations and you’re going to walk around probably a pretty angry person,” she noted. “On the other hand, if you do not walk around in this way, you have a better chance of feeling grateful for the actions of others.”

Lieberman’s advice for your Thanksgiving Day gathering?

““Many folks are still recovering from the COVID era and several have been hit hard by the recent economic downturn. So if you’re having a feast with loved ones, there is much to be grateful for,” she said.

For those challenged to feel thankful amidst the conditions and global calamities, she suggested a practice used in clinical interventions: Name three things that you’re grateful for.

“It can really pick you out of a funk,” Lieberman said. “Maybe it’s temporary, but saying out loud something like ‘I have my health’ or ‘I’m grateful for my family and the friendships I’ve made often leads to greater internal tranquility and gratitude.”