Feelings Of Gratitude Can Lead People To Obey Ethically Questionable Directives

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A new study published in the journal Emotion found that people who were induced to feel heightened levels of gratitude were more likely to behave in a socially obedient way. And not in a “good” socially obedient way — more along the lines of a participant in Stanley Milgram’s famous shock experiment or Phillip Zimbardo’s classic Stanford Prison Experiment.

Not familiar with those studies? Milgram tapped into the power of social obedience to show how everyday people could be coerced into administering a high-voltage electric shock to another person every time he or she answered a question wrong. Zimbardo showed how people, with relatively little guidance at all, could turn into brutalizing prison guards in a (sur)real-life game of cops and robbers.

In this study, participants who were induced to feel gratitude were more likely to obey commands to grind worms in a grinder than those who were not induced into a state of elevated gratitude — not something that would necessarily make your grandmother proud.

Why is it that gratitude has this double-edged effect? It likely has to do with the emotional state that gratitude brings about. Unlike the emotion of happiness or general feelings of positivity, gratitude is more closely aligned with the emotional states of acceptance, calmness, serenity, and quietude.

To make this a bit more concrete, you can think about all emotions as existing on a two-dimensional coordinate plane. On the X-axis, you have what psychologists call the “valence” of the emotional state, or the positivity or negativity of the emotional state. The more negative the emotion is, such as fear or anger, the more it will appear on the left side of the coordinate plane; the more positive the emotion is, such as happiness or surprise, the more it will appear on the right side of the coordinate plane. Then, on the Y-axis, you have emotional intensity, or arousal, ranging from “low” on the bottom of the plane to “high” on the top.

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Combining these two dimensions of emotion — valence and intensity — you can reproduce most of our emotional experiences. Anger, for instance, is a high-intensity, negatively-valenced emotional state while sadness is a low-intensity, negatively-valenced emotional state.

Again, gratitude differs from happiness not in the positivity of the emotional experience, but in its intensity: gratitude is a low-intensity emotional state while happiness is a high-intensity emotional state. This is likely why gratitude is linked with improved sleep and why therapists recommend you express gratitude before you go to bed. It helps calm you down. Happiness, on the other hand, gears you up.

One of the potential downsides of gratitude, as this new research points out, is that it can make you more susceptible to social influence. In other words, in this state of calm, you’re less likely to push back against the morally questionable directives of others. It’s similar to a hypnotic state, although not as all-encompassing.

But that doesn’t mean gratitude prevents you from putting on your thinking cap and acting in the best interests of humanity. Another new study found that when people were induced into a heightened state of gratitude, they were less likely to act selfishly and more likely to act in the best interest of the group in a resource allocation game. In other words, gratitude may be useful in promoting sustainable behavior. 

As is usually the case in psychology, the story is more complex than a one-sentence summary of a new research paper. With gratitude, the overall body of research suggests that the good outweighs the bad, as gratitude has been shown to improve sleep, reduce stress, and improve physical and emotional health. We would all be wise to incorporate more expressions of gratitude into our daily lives, while being aware that it can sometimes make us more susceptible to social influence.

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