Why Expressing Gratitude Can Be So Hard to Do

The most important factor in a long and happy life is having a good social network you can depend on. We’re pack animals, and we simply can’t go it alone. Every day, we cooperate with others, we help them, and they help us. Yet in the daily give-and-take, we so often fail to express our gratitude to those who make a difference in our lives.

“Surely they know how grateful I am,” we think. “I wouldn’t want to embarrass them by getting so emotional.” This reluctance to say thanks is odd, considering how both scientific research and common experience has shown that expressing gratitude boosts the mood of both the expresser and the receiver, thus strengthening the emotional bond between them.

Then why are we so reluctant to say thanks? This is the question that University of Chicago psychologists Amit Kumar and Nicholas Epley asked in a set of studies recently reported in the journal Psychological Science.

The researchers start out by noting that we all have an egocentric bias that makes it difficult for us to accurately predict how other people—or even ourselves—will feel in a particular situation. That is, we tend to assume that the way we currently feel is the way others feel, or how we’ll feel at some later time. Well-known examples are as follows:

  • People believe they’ll feel happier if they spend money on themselves but are in fact happier when they spend it on others.
  • People believe that engaging in a conversation with a stranger will be an unpleasant experience, but afterward they report it as positive.
  • Likewise, when introverts are instructed to pretend to be extraverted in a social situation, they later report that they enjoyed the experience more than others who remained introverted in the same situation.

Our egocentric bias thus leads us to systematically underestimate the positive value that social interactions will have for us.

With respect to expressing gratitude, Kumar and Epley suggest that this egocentric bias plays a role in two ways. First, since our gratitude is obvious to us, we assume it must be obvious to the other person as well. Psychologists call this mindset the curse of knowledge. That is, if you know something, it’s hard to imagine that other people don’t know it as well. “It’s obvious,” we say. But nothing is ever obvious.

Second, we often feel uncomfortable when we have to express certain emotions because we’re not sure how to go about doing so. We struggle for the right words to express our feelings, and in the process we assume the receiver will feel just as uncomfortable hearing about our gratitude as we feel in expressing it. In terms from social psychology, actors are more concerned about competence—saying or doing things in just the right way—while others usually judge us according to our warmth—that is, the perceived sincerity of the emotion we express. And so, while we struggle with our competence, those around us are touched by our warmth.

To test the idea that expressing gratitude can be difficult due to the social-cognitive biases outlined above, Kumar and Epley performed a series of experiments. Although each experiment was designed to test a specific aspect of the theory, the basic procedure and results were similar across the board. In a nutshell, participants were asked to write a letter of thanks to someone who had made a difference in their lives. Immediately after that, the participants answered questions relating to their mood, their feelings while writing the letter, and how they expected the recipient to feel on receiving the letter. The researchers then contacted the recipients and asked how they felt about the thank-you note.

After sending the letter, participants reported a boost in mood, saying that expressing their gratitude in words had been a positive experience for them. However, they still underestimated how surprised their recipients would be at receiving the letter, in line with the curse of knowledge, whereby we assume that what we know should be obvious to others. In fact, the recipients were quite surprised not just to receive a thank-you note but also by the content of that letter. In other words, the recipients generally didn’t know the impact their kindness had had on the letter writer.

Furthermore, the letter writers expected the receivers to feel uncomfortable about the expression of gratitude, but this wasn’t the case. And in follow up questions, the researchers determined that was due to the competence-versus-warmth issue we discussed earlier. That is to say, while letter writers felt awkward as they struggled to find the right words (competence), the letter receivers were deeply touched by the expression of gratitude (warmth), regardless of the actual words that were written.

Several lessons for life can be drawn from this study. First, don’t be cursed by knowledge. That is, don’t assume others know what you know. What’s obvious to you may not be obvious to them. People really can’t read your mind, so if you tell them what you’re thinking, it’s likely to be news to them.

As a corollary to this, people often do think they can read your mind, and they’ll make all sorts of inferences about what you’re thinking and feeling. They’re also often wrong, so by expressing straightforwardly what’s on your mind, you clarify a lot of misunderstanding. The importance of expressing gratitude is just one aspect of the general need to communicate in an honest and open manner.

Second, worry less about competence and focus your attention more on warmth. In the end, no one cares whether you used exactly the right words. Rather, what they care about is your warmth, that is, the sincerity of the emotion you express. In fact, words that are too skillfully crafted can come off as insincere, so it’s much better to use simple words and straightforward language.

This advice works not only for expressing gratitude, but also in other awkward situations such as giving your condolences or even asking someone out on a date. Afterward, no one will remember the exact words you used. But they will remember the emotions you expressed, and how much they were touched by them.

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