On being thankful for the freely given kindness of others

Friendships begin with liking or gratitude – roots that can be pulled up
Daniel Deronda (1876), by George Eliot

Twice in my life I’ve been stood behind someone in a queue who has unwittingly dropped a £10 pound note. Both times, I picked it up, tapped the person on the shoulder, and gave it back to them.

This hardly makes me a moral saint or deserving of great praise. Yet I’d bet that for both people the simple act of returning their money generated at least a fleeting flash of gratitude, as I could easily have pocketed it.

Gratitude — like its converse, moral censure — is a basic moral emotion that fuels everyday social interactions. Now new research shows that how much gratitude we experience after people do us a favour depends on free we think they were to do it.

In studies led by Michael MacKenzie at Florida State University, participants were primed to think of people’s behaviour as either more of less freely chosen. The sense of freedom in these experiments wasn’t anything to do with whether people are bound by rules or obligations, but the deeper sense of whether we have free will at all. Their findings are reported in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

To start with, MacKenzie, working with psychologists Kathleen Vohs at the University of Minnesota and Roy Baumeister at Florida State, set out to see if there was any link between the degree to which people already think we have free will, and their tendency to experience feelings of gratitude.

Belief in free will was measured by getting participants to rate their agreement with statements like “People have complete free will” and “People have complete control over the decisions they make”. Their disposition towards gratitude was assessed in a similar way, by asking whether they agreed with sentiments like “I am grateful to a wide variety of people” and “When I look at the world, I don’t see much to be grateful for”.

MacKenzie and colleagues found that the lower a person’s belief in free will, the less often they felt gratitude, and felt it about fewer people. But this correlation — which could just as well be phrased as the less disposed people are to experience gratitude, the less they believe in free will — doesn’t say whether one causes the other. So in the next experiment they set out to manipulate how much free will people think we have, and then measure gratitude.

To get people to think that we generally lack free will, MacKenzie and colleagues had participants read things like “Science has demonstrated that free will is an illusion”. After reading these anti-free will claims, participants wrote about three events from their life when they experienced gratitude, and rated how much gratitude they currently felt about these events.

Compared with people whose belief in free will was bolstered by reading statements like “I demonstrate my free will every day when I make decisions”, those subjected to anti-free will ideas were less grateful for these recalled memories. In fact, gratitude in the pro-free will condition was roughly the same as when people re-wrote some factual statements, reinforcing findings from global surveys that people generally believe in free will by default.

One drawback of this approach is that every participant came up with a unique set of experiences for which they could feel grateful. So in another round of experiments, gratitude about the same event was measured. Participants read either a pro- or anti-free will essay (which they also had to summarise, to ensure they comprehended it), and were then assigned to a boring task. However, they didn’t end up doing this task, because a kindly confederate of the researchers let them off the hook. After this lucky escape, they rated how grateful they were for being spared — as well as answering some questions about how much they valued the favour, how sincerely motivated their benefactor had been to help them, and how costly the favour was to perform.

Regardless of which essay people read, the ratings for both the value and cost of the favour were similar. However, those who read the anti-free will essay felt less gratitude towards their benefactor than those who read the pro-free will essay (or re-arranged factual sentences), and thought the favour was done with less motivational sincerity.

In a fourth round of experiments, people were primed with either pro- or anti-free will essays. Next, they read a story about someone being helped out, and were asked to put themselves in this person’s shoes. Afterwards, they were asked whether the person who offered help in this story acted out of their own free will, whether they genuinely wanted to help out of the kindness of their heart, and finally how grateful they would feel if they were the person in the story.

In line with all the other findings, disabusing people of belief in free will reduced feelings of gratitude for the help received. This manipulation also led people to assign less free will to the benefactor, which in turn lowered ratings of their motivational sincerity and quelled feelings of gratitude.

Many popular authors, such as Sam Harris, argue that free will is not only an illusion, but a harmful one at that. They claim that if we accepted that free will isn’t real, we’d take more notice of the actual causes of people’s behaviour, and this could reduce our desire for vengeful retribution against those who do wrong, and lead to more compassion in dealing with criminals. And there is evidence that reducing belief in free will does indeed reduce the desire for retributive, or vengeful, punishment.

This research, however, adds to a growing body of evidence that abandoning belief in free will could also have some definite downsides. Vohs, in work carried out with Jonathan Schooler, has found that decreasing people’s belief in free will increases cheating behaviour, and a recent paper by a separate group suggested that it may also amplify prejudice.

Lowering global levels of gratitude might not be quite so bad as turning us into prejudiced cheats, gratitude oils the cogs of social interaction and without it things might run a little less smoothly. Beyond that, gratitude, like many other positive emotions such as love and awe, is psychologically and physically good for us to experience. So next time someone does you a good turn, don’t think about the metaphysics of their action. Just say, “Thanks, you didn’t have to do that!”.


More on free will
Here’s a news story I recently wrote for New Scientist on why neuroscience isn’t the threat to free will it’s often thought to be, and a feature of mine from a couple of years back on the psychology of free will.

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About Dan Jones

Dan Jones is a freelance science writer
This entry was posted in RESEARCH, Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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