You May Be Underestimating How Much People Appreciate A Simple 'Thank You,' Study Shows

" [...] those being thanked didn't really care about exactly how the sentiment was expressed. They were simply thrilled by the gesture."

Despite the notion that "please" and "thank you" are magic words, for many, using said niceties has become as rote as punctuation. They pepper conversation with such pleasantries without forethought, as they've simply become routine. But, as one new study emphasizes, expressing genuine gratitude can have a positive impact on the well-being of everyone involved.

In many instances, people consider expressing gratitude by sending friends or colleagues thank-you messages that convey appreciation. Yet, before they follow through, people regularly disregard their initial whim and abandon the message entirely, rationalizing this behavior by claiming that the note won't mean much to the recipient or that it will make them feel awkward.

However, as U.S. psychologists Amit Kumar of the University of Texas at Austin and Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business explain in their recent report, most adults underestimate the positive impact expressing gratitude has on both the recipient and themselves, which leads many to miss out on an easy way to improve social relations and well-being. As part of the study published in Psychological ScienceUndervaluing Gratitude: Expressers Misunderstand the Consequences of Showing Appreciation — both Kumar and Epley conclude that "expressing gratitude might not buy everything, but it may buy more than people seem to expect."

According to the study's abstract, "Participants in three experiments wrote gratitude letters and then predicted how surprised, happy, and awkward recipients would feel. Recipients then reported how receiving an expression of gratitude actually made them feel. Expressers significantly underestimated how surprised recipients would be about why expressers were grateful, overestimated how awkward recipients would feel, and underestimated how positive recipients would feel."

Thus, after writing a "thank you" email expressing what the given person had done and how it affected their life, participants were asked to predict how the recipient would feel and perceive them. Researchers subsequently contacted the recipients to gauge their actual responses. While senders overestimated how awkward the recipient would feel, they also underestimated how warm and competent the recipient perceived them to be. 

As Jessica Stillman writes for Inc., "Follow up experiments comparing recipients' feelings about the letters with the anxieties of those who sent them found that while writers worried about their tone and word choice, those being thanked didn't really care about exactly how the sentiment was expressed. They were simply thrilled by the gesture."

"People don't seem to walk around in their day-to-day lives giving thanks to people all that often," Kumar told the Psychological Science blog

As the blog also noted, "The authors suggest some reasons that individuals might undervalue gratitude. First, expressers might assume that a recipient already knows they're appreciative, so they underestimate the recipient's surprise at being genuinely thanked. Second, actors tend to evaluate themselves in terms of competence, so they may worry about how they express gratitude. Yet observers tend to evaluate people based on warmth and intent, so expresser could underestimate how happy, and overestimate how awkward, they'll make the recipients feel."

Thus, while those who wish to express gratitude might worry that the recipient will take their message the wrong way, the study overwhelmingly indicates that recipients are, in turn, grateful to the sender for sharing their appreciation. People need to refrain from doubting actions that clearly advance happiness and allow their feelings to flow freely, for expressing gratitude encourages both parties to embrace kindness in other areas of their lives.

Cover image via Rawpixel.com / Shutterstock

(H/T: The British Psychological Society)

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