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The benefits of witnessing gratitude

Need a way to build high quality relationships at work? Cultivate the expression of gratitude in your social network.

Thanks to a series of research studies by University of North Carolina social psychologist Sara Algoe and her collaborators, the impact of felt and expressed gratitude on relationships (e.g., friends, romantic partners) is well established. Feeling and expressing gratitude serve a unique function in helping people find high quality relationships and binding them tightly to these relationships.

Brand new research by Algoe and colleagues reveals that even third party witnesses to someone expressing gratitude can be beneficial. In a new paper in press at Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Algoe and her collaborators Patrick Dwyer, Ayana Younge, and Chris Oveis demonstrate shifts in group members’ behavior not only for the recipients (“benefactors”) of gratitude, but also in the behavior of third party witnesses to the emotion expression.

In a series of eight experimental studies conducted by the team, witnessing gratitude (including “other-praising” expressions of gratitude) resulted in people being more spontaneously helpful, more affiliative, and more interested in affiliating with others. Not surprisingly, people are more interested in affiliating with people who express gratitude than people who are the benefactors of others’ expressed gratitude.

Interestingly, the effect of witnessing gratitude is not the same as emotion contagion, that is, “catching” another person’s emotions (in this case, gratitude). In fact, witnessing others express gratitude does not cause an increase in felt gratitude in observers. Rather, Algoe and colleagues find that gratitude influences third parties by shifting the interpersonal dynamics of the group.

You might be asking yourself: How does witnessing gratitude cause helpfulness, if not through contagion? The underlying explanation is two-fold. One underlying mechanism is an increase in perceived responsiveness, that is, people who express gratitude appear to understand other people better and value other people's abilities and opinions more. This explains gratitude’s effects above and beyond alternate explanations such as the increased warmth and competence of people who express gratitude. A second underlying mechanism that the authors discover is much simpler: people who express gratitude seem like good people, prompting others to want to help and affiliate with them more.

With news cycle constantly documenting the spread of incivility, these findings offer great news for society, particularly since gratitude often occurs in social contexts such as in the presence of family members, coworkers, friends, and neighbors. In this way, gratitude not only benefits the relationship between two people, it helps to build tighter social networks, ultimately leading to enhanced overall well-being and higher-functioning, healthier groups. So go ahead and express gratitude for an awesome colleague, and be sure to do it in situations where others at work can benefit from it, too.

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