Research: When It Comes to Gratitude, Powerful People May Feel It More

Gratitude photo (Courtesy Debby Hudson)
Gonzaga social psychology Professors Monica Bartlett and Sarah Arpin, and Claremont McKenna College Professor Piercarlo Valdesolo came to this conclusion.
November 04, 2019
Jordan Gonzalez ( ’20) for Gonzaga News Service

SPOKANE, Wash. — A new series of studies shows that powerful people may actually feel more grateful than those with less power — a finding that bucks previous research. Power is defined as both control over resources (money, status, decision-making) due to social standing as well as one’s self-perceived influence.

Gonzaga University social psychology Professors Monica Bartlett, Ph.D. and Sarah Arpin, Ph.D., and Professor Piercarlo Valdesolo, Ph.D., from Claremont McKenna College, came to this conclusion.

Gonzaga Professor Monica Bartlett (Photo courtesy Monica Bartlett)
Gonzaga Professor Monica Bartlett. (Courtesy Monica Bartlett)
While previous research found that more power generally increases self-focus, corrupts quality relationships and reduces feelings of gratitude, Bartlett, Valdesolo and Arpin found the opposite to be true.

Given the previous research, Bartlett said, “We expected to find something very different than what we did.”

Bartlett, a leading scholar in gratitude research, published a 2014 study in the journal Emotion with Lisa Williams at the University of New South Wales, Australia, that offered the first known evidence that expressions of gratitude lead to perceptions of interpersonal warmth, creating fertile ground for relationships to bloom.

In this year’s series of three studies, the trio of psychologists explained their findings in “The Paradox of Power: The Relationship between Self-Esteem and Gratitude” published in the Journal of Social Psychology.

The first study (1A) reveals a strong positive relationship between individuals’ sense of power and their feelings of gratitude. The second study (1B) replicates those findings and reveals that self-esteem fosters this positive power-gratitude relationship. The third study (2) further supports the positive relationship of power to gratitude via self-esteem.

“We argue that because gratitude is predicated on recognition that others value oneself, power amplifies rather than undercuts feelings of gratitude,” the research notes.

Gonzaga Professor Sarah Arpin (GU photo)
Gonzaga Professor Sarah Arpin (GU photo)
Power was measured by the Sense of Power Scale, which asks people to assess their own perception of power in their relationships. Participants responded to statements such as “in my relationship with others, my wishes carry much weight” and “in my relationships with others, I can get them to do what I want.” The possible responses to the questions range from strongly agree to strongly disagree.

Participants also took a Gratitude Questionnaire — also with responses ranging from strongly agree to strongly disagree — to measure only how grateful people feel, not their general happiness.

After determining that more personal power increases gratitude, the team sought to understand why. True feelings of gratitude, they found, results not from people having done things for them but rather from the feeling that someone acted out of true care and concern.

Professor Piercarlo Valdesolo, Claremont McKenna College. (Photo courtesy Claremont McKenna College)
Professor Piercarlo Valdesolo, Claremont McKenna College. (Courtesy Claremont McKenna College)

“If you think someone’s done something for you for their own selfish reasons, you’re not going to feel grateful,” Bartlett said. “You may feel annoyed, or indebted, but not gratitude.”

According to Bartlett, people with more power tend to have higher self-esteem and thus may be more likely to perceive that people do things for them out of positive regard.

“Our attempt in this paper was to begin testing this,” Bartlett said. “That people who feel powerful are more likely to recognize that what people are doing is done out of care for them because of their higher self-esteem.”

These studies run counter to previous research about gratitude, including a 2011 series of studies published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, titled “How Power Corrupts Relationships: Cynical Attributions for Others’ Generous Acts.”

So, what’s changed? Turns out, it may be all in the questions that are being asked.

In the 2011 studies, participants were asked to think about a workplace scenario involving gratitude for a favor done by a co-worker and the extent to which they would feel compelled to return that favor.

“In our study, we didn’t look at a co-worker setting but asked people about their own sense of power,” Bartlett said. “How powerful do they feel? And then we looked at how grateful they feel generally in their lives. And we find something very different (than the 2011 researchers).”

The findings, Bartlett notes, “Are pointing us in a direction for future research in which we better understand how varying levels of self-esteem impacts the ability to feel grateful.”

Check out "Choosing Joy," a feature story in Gonzaga Magazine (Fall 2019) that includes a simple exercise.
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