These data provide the first evidence that the emotion of gratitude is associated with relationship formation. Gratitude was predicted by relational appraisals of a benefit: Both liking for the benefit and rated thoughtfulness of the Big Sister (a measure of perceived responsiveness) were robust predictors of gratitude. The effect of “liking” replicates previous findings for associations between value of the benefit and feelings of gratitude (Tesser et al., 1968
; Tsang, 2007
). Importantly, the index of perceived responsiveness was a more consistent predictor of gratitude than effort, cost, or surprise, and is a factor that has been left out of many previous analyses.
Gratitude may initiate a relationship-building cycle between recipient and benefactor. At the time of the event, the Little Sister’s gratitude predicted her feelings about her unknown benefactor, and this association could not be accounted for by her liking for the benefit itself. Moreover, Little Sisters’ average gratitude ratings from Big Sister Week reliably predicted both Little Sisters’ and Big Sisters’ ratings of their interactions and relationship 1 month later, in support of predictions about the dyadic function of gratitude. All of these effects were moderate to large. Finally, at the group level, gratitude may help solve the problem of integration and cooperation of group members: Little Sisters’ gratitude predicted their feelings of integration within the sorority at Revelations.
By assessing relational appraisals and relationship outcomes in a real-world context, this study is a first step toward determining how and whether gratitude can influence dyadic relationships. Given its correlational nature, it is not the definitive assessment of whether gratitude causes improved dyadic and group relationships, as predicted by the social functional model of emotion. However, the prospective design of the relationship analyses gives us some confidence in the direction of the effects from gratitude to relationships. We look forward to future experimental evidence to demonstrate relational processes and outcomes associated with gratitude.
There is much more to be learned about the role of gratitude in social life. However, we believe that the study reported here indicates for the first time that gratitude is about more than repaying benefits; it is about building relationships. The social functional account fits with and extends previous empirical findings to propose that gratitude is a detection-and-response system to help find, remind, and bind ourselves to attentive others. Relationships with others who are responsive to our whole self—our likes and dislikes, our needs and preferences—can help us get through difficult times and flourish in good times. Gratitude can be understood as an emotion that serves the social function of promoting such relationships.