Does gratitude promote a sense of fairness and equality?

December 13th, 2009 by Ravi Iyer

Gratitude has been theorized to be a moral emotion, yet it has largely been studied for it’s hedonic benefits rather than it’s effect on moral reasoning.  I had done some previous analyses on our data at where scores on the Gratitude quotient scale were positively related to most all measures of moral reasoning.  By itself, this isn’t particularly interesting as there are so many possible interpretations of this.  People who have nice things happen to them may feel grateful and also be nice people.  Nicer, more moral people may do good things in life and may receive benefits for them, for which they are grateful.  The numerous interpretations make any conclusion difficult.

As such, I decided to put a simple gratitude manipulation where participants were asked to write about something they were grateful for, before the moral foundations questionnaire.  I attempted to test the effects of gratitude on moral reasoning by running an experiment where participants were asked to write about 5 things they were grateful for, 5 hassles from their life, or 5 neutral events.  Below are the results of ~1500 participants.  Generally, it seems gratitude makes people more morally liberal and when I examined the standard liberal/conservative moral split (Harm & Fairness minus Authority, Ingroup, & Purity), there was a marginally significant relationship (p=.06) between being in the gratitude condition and having a greater liberal split.  The effect sizes are obviously small, but those in the gratitude condition appear to endorse the fairness foundation (p<.01) more and the authority foundation less (p<.05).


I’m not sure how to interpret this result.  It may just be random error.  To explore the result further, I looked at the individual fairness questions.

Gratitude and Fairness

The fact that the gratitude manipulation has a fairly homogenous effect at the question level is promising.  Fairness can be thought of in many different ways.  It can be thought of as a concern for equality or for people not getting what they deserve.  The “RICH” and “TREATED” questions appear to show the biggest effect and they are most indicative of a concern for equality (see question text below).  I could imagine a theoretical argument for this link as being grateful and satisfied with a situation allows one the luxury of being generous and worrying about equal treatment.  There is research indicating that being grateful motivates prosocial behavior (also see this article).

Here is a list of fairness questions:

TREATED – Whether or not some people were treated differently than others

UNFAIRLY – Whether or not someone acted unfairly

RIGHTS – Whether or not someone was denied his or her rights

FAIRLY – When the government makes laws, the number one principle should be ensuring that everyone is treated fairly.

JUSTICE – Justice is the most important requirement for a society.

RICH – I think it’s morally wrong that rich children inherit a lot of money while poor children inherit nothing.

Still, I’m not 100% convinced of these results given the small effect sizes and will likely have to do more studies to confirm if this effect is replicable or is just an effect of noisy data.  Another way to look at the reliability of these effects is to examine whether these effects are consistent across groups.  It does appear that the effect is consistent across groups for increasing fairness.

Gratitude and Fairness for Liberals, Conservatives, and Libertarians

The robustness of this effect less consistent for the Authority foundation, though it is perhaps worth considering why grateful libertarians may endorse authority less.  Perhaps the only reason for libertarians to value authority is out of a sense of insecurity.  For example, the libertarian party does espouse the idea that the only role of government is to provide security for property rights.  If that security is provided, perhaps libertarians see no need for any authority?

Gratitude and Authority for liberals, conservatives, and libertarians

I’m not sure if I have enough evidence for a paper.  All research is somewhere between a zero and 1 in terms of it’s conclusiveness and these results may be too preliminary to reach the somewhat arbitrary standard of paper-hood.  I could clearly strengthen these results with a regression analyses of our large correlational dataset that confirms these patterns.  I’ll have to get feedback from more objective parties.

– Ravi Iyer

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