A new social experiment conducted at the University of California, San Diego focused on cardiovascular responses of the body to a stressful task done by pairs of people in loose-tie relationships. It showed that a team member expressing gratitude improves the cardiovascular responses of teammates, making their bodies react to the task at hand as towards a challenge rather than a threat. The study was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.
Many previous studies have shown that the emotion of gratitude is very beneficial in social life. It was shown to positively influence personal well-being, satisfaction in relationships, affiliative behavior and many other psychological conditions. As authors of this study state, “momentary emotional response of gratitude to another person for their kind actions helps promote a high-quality, communal relationship between the grateful person and their benefactor” and this has lead many researchers to focus on the study of expressed gratitude as a behavioral mechanisms that facilitates the relationship between the person expressing and receiving gratitude.
The other aspect of this experiment is the biopsychosocial model (BPS) of challenge and threat. This model states that “when people appraise that the demands of a task exceed their own resources to complete the task, they are likely to experience a threat response, marked by a less efficient cardiovascular activation.” On the other hand, when people see their resources as exceeding the demands of the task at hand, they will experience a challenge response, marked by a more efficient cardiovascular activation pattern.
The importance of this model for the study is that it allows researchers to determine whether a person perceives the situation at hand as a challenge or a threat and to what degree by measuring physiological reactions of a person using appropriate instruments (rather than having to interview the person or relying on self-report assessments).
To study whether expressing gratitude influences challenge and threat responses, Yumeng Gu and her colleagues devised an experiment in which they organized participants into two-person teams or dyads. Participants were 190 mostly female undergraduate students of the University of California, San Diego, who each received $24 for their participation in this experiment and a larger study on gratitude expression.
Students within each team were “same-gender, first-year students who had been living together as suitemates for approximately four months.” Teams were randomly divided into two groups – experimental and control group. In each team of the experimental group one of the students expressed gratitude by talking to her/his teammate about something that teammate did in the past for which the student felt grateful, while the control group proceeded directly to other tasks.
Teammates then completed a collaborative task during which they had to design a product, marketing plan and pitch. After this, they individually presented their part of the product pitch to the evaluators (individual performance task). Physiological measurements of cardiovascular activity were taken before and during parts of this procedure.
The researchers found that “when one member of a team expressed gratitude to the other prior to engaging in stressful collaborative work, the team members were buffered from inefficient (threat-patterned) cardiovascular responding” as compared to the control group. The effect was present in both teammates. Results showed that gratitude expression enhanced cardiovascular efficiency not only immediately after it was expressed and while teammates worked together, but also later when participants completed individual performance tasks (individually).
This experiment provided first evidence that expression of gratitude creates positive changes in biological responses of teammates, but authors note that relationships between teammates in the study are “not strictly representative of work teammates.” Also, participants interacted face-to-face during the experiment, so it remains unknown whether similar effects would be found in situations of online collaboration.
The study, “Gratitude expressions improve teammates’ cardiovascular stress responses“, was authored by Yumeng Gu, Joseph M. Ocampo, Sara B. Algoe, and Christopher Davis.