NEW YORK – Most of us were taught that saying ‘thank you’ is simply the polite thing to do.
But recent research in social psychology suggests that saying ‘thank you’ goes beyond good manners – it also serves to build and maintain social relationships.
The research specifically looked at how do expressions of gratitude among strangers shape social relations? Might hearing ‘thank you’ help us ‘find’ new social relationships?
It was based on the find-remind-and-bind theory of gratitude, proposed by US psychologist Sara Algoe, from the University of North Carolina.
According to this theory, gratitude starts new friendships (find), orients people to existing social relationships (remind) and promotes existing relationships (bind).
My colleague Monica Bartlett, from Gonzaga University in Washington and I carried out the first empirical test of the ‘find’ function of expressing gratitude among strangers.
In the study, we sought to create a situation in the lab where we could manipulate the expression of gratitude in a realistic way.
So we asked our 70 undergraduate participants to help pilot a new mentoring programme supposedly run by the university.
As part of the pilot, all of our participants were to act as mentors by giving advice on a writing sample from a high-school student mentee.
The writing sample was one that the mentee planned to use in their university admissions package.
This setup ensured that we satisfied one of the core starting points of gratitude – the granting of help, resources or a favour.
A week later, we brought the participants back to the lab. All participants received a note purportedly written by the high school mentee.
For half of the participants – those in the control condition – this note simply acknowledged the advice.
Critically, for the other half of the participants, the note also included an expression of gratitude.
Participants next completed a series of questionnaires assessing their impressions of the mentee, and then were informed that the study was complete.
Except, that wasn’t quite true. The researcher casually mentioned that the pilot program organisers had left a set of notecards for mentors to complete if they chose to.
The programme organisers would ensure that the mentee received the note if the mentee were accepted to the university.
The researcher made it clear that leaving a note was completely optional and then left the room. Participants were left alone to decide whether to write a note, and, if so, what to say.