It turns out that saying your “thank-you’s” is more than a polite courtesy that pleases your parents.
In 2014, social psychologists Dr. Monica Bartlett at Gonzaga University and Lisa Williams at University of New South Wales in Australia, conducted a study that contains evidence that expressing gratitude has positive effects on social relationships.
The study consisted of 70 GU students who were under the impression that they were helping edit high schoolers' college application essays. Afterward, half of the participants received a thank-you note from the student and the other half did not.
Without ever meeting the high school student, each participant was asked what their impressions of the student were. Impressions include how warm, likable, polite and thoughtful they believed the student to be. At the end of the study, participants were offered the chance to leave a welcome note in case the student should come to GU.
Results showed that if the participant was thanked, they viewed the person as more polite and more likable and were more willing to meet them and introduce them to friends. In addition, the participant was more likely to write a welcome note and leave contact information so that the student could reach out by email and phone.
“The point was to see, if you were thanked for the time you spent editing this essay, does it change the way in which you see someone and consequently your willingness and actual behavior in wanting to socially affiliate with them, get to know them and spend time with them," Bartlett said. "And, the answer is yes."
Bartlett graduated with her doctorate in social psychology from Northeastern University in Boston. Immediately after graduating, Bartlett became a psychology professor at GU. She is now an associate professor and the chair of the psychology department. Bartlett also runs GU’s positive emotion and social behavior lab.
Dr. Anna Medina, a fellow psychology professor at GU, said that Bartlett has a genuine interest in her students and always works hard to support her colleagues. Medina said that it is her work ethic that makes her research so good.
“I think [Bartlett's research] is interesting and I think it is important because whereas others studying this construct often rely on more easily obtained self-report measures," Medina said. "Dr. Bartlett goes the extra mile to examine behavioral indices of gratitude."
Since the beginning of her career, Bartlett was interested in the ways that emotions affect decision making and behavior. Early on she noticed that the majority of psychological research was on negative behaviors such as anger, sadness and fear. Bartlett wanted to do something different.
“There was tons of work on that [negative emotions] and virtually nothing on specific positive emotions," Bartlett said. "I think since I was generally interested in the idea of cooperation and caring for others, I thought gratitude was a nice place to start."
Bartlett’s work comes from the functionalist perspective, which is the assumption that emotions serve a purpose and help people navigate social interactions. According to Bartlett, we would be in trouble without guidance from our emotions.
Bartlett’s research on gratitude has taught her just how important it is to be intentional about noticing even the small things in life that we are thankful for. People tend to focus on everything that is going wrong and consequently miss the good things all together, she said.
“Whether it’s a cup of coffee my husband brought me or the hug that my kiddo gave me before I left for work this morning, I just really truly feel like I appreciate that and I’m glad I have it,” Bartlett said. “I think that brings a lot of joy. I know it maybe sounds silly ... but our days are full of those small kindnesses and they are easy to overlook.”
Next on Bartlett's agenda is to research if people feel grateful for the planet even though it is a nonhuman entity and what the benefits may be. She is also researching how differences in group membership may change people’s ability to feel grateful.