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Gratitude is an emotional state, a feeling of thankfulness and appreciation at a benefit received. Feelings of gratitude can strengthen friendship and communion when accepted with an assumption of good faith that the motivation of the benefactor is to afford pleasure or contentment.

Psychological research

Individuals are more likely to experience gratitude when they receive a favor that is perceived to be (1) valued by the recipient, (2) costly to the benefactor, (3) given by the benefactor with benevolent intentions, and (4) given gratuitously (rather than out of role-based obligations)(McCullough Kilpatrick, Emmons, & Larson, 2001).

Value of the benefit

Experience of gratitude generally increases in magnitude in relation to the value of the benefit given (Berger, 1975; McCullough et al., 2001). For example, Ortony, Clore, and Collins (1988) posited that gratitude was a compound emotion that arose from the admiration of a praiseworthy action (intention) and the joy experienced when that action is desirable (or valuable) to the self. Therefore, they predicted that the desirability or value of the benefit was one factor that would increase the intensity of gratitude. They further noted that it is the potential value of the benefit, and not the actual value, that affects the intensity of gratitude, making it possible for people to feel grateful toward a benefactor who attempts to bring about a desirable outcome but is unsuccessful.

Since gratitude is felt on the recipient side, it is important to note that the effect of benefit value, as well as of the other hypothesized determinants of gratitude, lies in the construal of the recipient (e.g., Ortony et al., 1988; Pyke & Coltrane, 1996). Personality variables that increase the likelihood that a recipient would construe a favor in terms of gratitude, such as perspective-taking and empathy (e.g., Emmons & Shelton, 2002; Lazarus & Lazarus, 1994), may facilitate the experience of gratitude. Regarding benefit value, the recipient has to perceive the benefit as something positive and desirable. If the benefactor believes that the benefit is valuable, but the recipient does not, the recipient will not experience gratitude (although the benefactor may expect gratitude and therefore label the recipient’s reaction as ungrateful). Similarly, the recipient has to value receiving the positive outcome from that particular benefactor.

Cost to the benefactor

The perceived cost of the benefit to the benefactor may also be an important determinant of gratitude (Berger, 1975; McCullough et al., 2001). Ortony et al. (1988) theorized that the cost of a benefit would contribute to the perceived praiseworthiness of an action, thereby increasing the intensity of gratitude. Trivers (1971) placed gratitude in an evolutionary framework, positing that gratitude evolved in part to help sensitize humans to cost/value ratios of altruistic acts. Hence, increases in the cost and value of a received benefit should lead to increases in gratitude.

Perceived cost may covary with value, since it may take more effort on the part of the benefactor to procure valuable benefits. However, this may not always be the case, especially in instances when the benefactor has many resources compared with the recipient. As was the case with value, it is the recipient’s perception of the benefactor’s cost that will determine the recipient’s experience of gratitude.

Intention of the benefactor

The perception of benevolent intention may also be a necessary component in the elicitation of gratitude (Berger, 1975; Emmons & Crumpler, 2000; Steindl-Rast, 1967). Heider (1958) claimed that individuals feel grateful only for positive outcomes that were intended by a benefactor. If the benefactor were forced to provide the benefit or felt obligated to do so, the recipient would be less likely to feel grateful for the benefit. Graham and Weiner (1986) classed gratitude with other “attribution-dependent” emotions, which are elicited by individuals’ perceptions of the causes of specific outcomes. They stated that gratitude is felt when the individual perceives that a positive outcome that benefited the self was under the control of and intentionally caused by another person. The benefit has to be perceived as deliberately intended for the recipient and freely given in order for gratitude to be felt. Thus Graham and Weiner stressed the importance of both intention, and controllability, two related but distinct variables. Lazarus and Lazarus (1994) believed that gratitude is elicited when a recipient construes a situation in terms of “appreciating an altruistic gift” (p. 118). A benefit is perceived as “altruistic” when the recipient interprets the benefactor’s intentions as benevolent. Therefore, empathy is important for gratitude, as the recipient has to take the perspective of the benefactor in order to perceive the benefactor’s good intentions. Ortony et al. (1988) theorized that a positive act has to be intentional in order to be praiseworthy, and the combined perception of praiseworthiness and joy would lead to feelings of gratitude. Trivers (1971) also emphasized the importance of intention for gratitude. He claimed that benefactors who give benefits out of ulterior motives may be prone to cheat within the altruistic system; for example, these calculating individuals may choose not to reciprocate a later favor. To discourage this subtle cheating, it becomes adaptive for individuals to be sensitive to the intentions of a benefactor, with gratitude more likely to occur when the recipient perceives the benefactor having benevolent rather than selfish intentions.

The perception of benevolent intentions may also intensify gratitude by increasing the value of the benefit. For example, Berger (1975) stated that the value of the benefit was determined in part by the intention of the benefactor. A benefit increases value if it was done intentionally to benefit the recipient. The intentionality of the act reveals the benefactor’s benevolence, and this benevolent concern for the recipient adds to the value of a favor. Some theorists have noted that the increased value that accompanies a benevolently given benefit makes it impossible to reciprocate in an exactly equivalent manner, because a reciprocated benefit has less initiative and spontaneity than the original benefit, and is therefore less benevolent (Berger, 1975; Simmel, 1950).

Gratuitousness of the benefit

Individuals may also be more likely to feel grateful for benefits that are gratuitous, rather than expected (Emmons & Crumpler, 2000; McCullough et al., 2001). Ortony et al. (1988) posited that individuals would feel more grateful for benefits that deviated from role-based expectations about the benefactor. Individuals may feel they deserve benefits from family and friends, and feel only a small amount gratitude in receiving them. In contrast, help from a stranger or mere acquaintance might induce greater amounts of gratitude, because the favor appears more gratuitous and less based on roles and expectations. However, Lazarus and Lazarus (1994) noted that individuals can still feel grateful for benefits given out of role-based obligations, if it is perceived that the benefactor went above and beyond the call of duty. Another possible factor affecting gratuitousness and consequently gratitude is the perceived deservingness of the recipient. Heider (1958) believed that individuals were less likely to feel grateful for benefits that they felt they already deserved. Therefore, undeserved benefits such as forgiveness may induce more gratitude than benefits that are perceived as deserved, such as payment for services rendered.

Empirical support for the determinants of gratitude

Most of the studies exploring the determinants of gratitude have employed scenario and self-report methodology. The results of these studies have generally supported the role of different determinants of gratitude. For example, Tesser, Gatewood, and Driver (1968) presented participants with scenarios in which a benefactor caused a positive outcome for a recipient. The researchers systematically varied levels of intention, cost, and value across the scenarios. Participants were asked to imagine themselves in these scenarios and rate how grateful they would feel. Tesser et al. found that perceived intention, cost, and value had linear effects on individuals’ perceptions of gratitude, with participants reporting more gratitude when reading about a benefit that was provided intentionally, costly for the benefactor, and valued by the recipient. Similarly, Lane and Anderson (1976) presented participants with vignettes that varied the value of the favor and the intention of the benefactor, and asked participants to rate the gratitude they would feel for each scenario. They found that information about intentionality and value were averaged to determine the level of gratitude, with higher levels of intentionality and value leading to greater anticipated experiences of gratitude.

Graham (1988) presented children ages 5-11 years with a scenario in which a target child received a favor that was given either voluntarily or involuntarily. Children of all ages perceived the controllable, voluntary favor to elicit more gratitude than the involuntary favor, and older children (ages 8-11 years) demonstrated this perception significantly more often. These results support the role of benefactor intention in determining feelings of gratitude. Additionally, children illustrate increased understanding of the relationship between intention and gratitude as they age.

Bar-Tal, Bar-Zohar, Greenberg, Hermon, (1977) conducted an experiment that looked at the importance of role-obligation on feelings of gratitude. They presented participants with a scenario in which the participant asked another to help him/her. The potential benefactors varied in terms of their relationship closeness to the participant (e.g., a stranger versus a parent). Bar-Tal et al. found that participants felt that potential benefactors with whom they had closer relationships were under the most obligation to help them. Additionally, participants reported less gratitude for help from closer relationships; specifically, participants felt most grateful for help from a stranger, and least grateful for help from a parent. This experiment provided support for the role of gratuitousness in facilitating feelings of gratitude.

Feelings of gratitude may be beneficial to subjective emotional well-being (Emmons & McCullough, 2003). In people who are grateful in general, life events have little influence on experienced gratitude (McCullough, Tsang & Emmons, 2004).

See also


  • Bar-Tal, D., Bar-Zohar, Y., Greenberg, M. S., & Hermon, M. (1977). Reciprocity behavior in the relationship between donor and recipient and between harm-doer and victim. Sociometry, 40, 293-298.
  • Berger, F. R. (1975). Gratitude. Ethics, 85, 298-309.
  • Emmons, R. A., & Crumpler, C. A. (2000). Gratitude as a human strength: Appraising the evidence. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 19, 56-69.
  • Emmons, R. A. & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 377-389. (electronic copy)
  • Emmons, R. A., & Shelton, C. M. (2002). Gratitude and the science of positive psychology. In C. R. Snyder and S. J. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of positive psychology (pp. 459-471), New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Graham, S. (1988). Children’s developing understanding of the motivational role of affect: An attributional analysis. Cognitive Development, 3, 71-88.
  • Graham, S., & Weiner, B. (1986). From an attributional theory of emotion to developmental psychology: A round-trip ticket? Social Cognition, 4, 152-179.
  • Heider, F. (1958). The psychology of interpersonal relations. Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Lane, J., & Anderson, N.H. (1976). Integration of intention and outcome in moral judgment. Memory and Cognition, 4, 1-5.
  • Lazarus, R. S., & Lazarus, B. N. (1994). Passion and reason: Making sense of our emotions. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • McCullough, M. E., Kilpatrick, S. D., Emmons, R. A., & Larson, D. B. (2001). Is gratitude a moral affect? Psychological Bulletin, 127, 249-266.
  • McCullough, M. E., Tsang, J. & Emmons, R. A. (2004). Gratitude in intermediate affective terrain: Links of grateful moods to individual differences and daily emotional experience. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86,295-309. (electronic copy)
  • Ortony, A., Clore, G. L., & Collins, A. (1988). The cognitive structure of emotions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Simmel, G. (1950). The Sociology of Georg Simmel. (K. H. Wolff, Trans., Ed.). Glencoe, IL: The Free Press.
  • Steindl-Rast, D. F. K. (1967). A deep bow. Main Currents in Modern Thought, 23, 128-132.
  • Tesser, A., Gatewood, R. & Driver, M. (1968). Some determinants of gratitude. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 9, 233-236.
  • Trivers, R. L. (1971). The evolution of reciprocal altruism. The Quarterly Review of Biology, 46, 35-57.

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