Two new social experiments showed that people prompted to experience both gratitude and indebtedness at the same time were more likely to behave in a prosocial way. Wanting to repay a debt produced better prosocial outcomes than having to repay a debt. One’s attitude towards God also played a role. The study was published in the Journal of Positive Psychology.
Gratitude is a complex cultural mechanism that is thought to bind people together through reciprocal giving. It was found to mediate the link between receiving help and prosocial behaviors. Prosocial behaviors are activities that are intended to benefit others, often without expecting anything in return. They range from small acts of kindness and generosity to more significant acts of altruism and selflessness.
Gratitude might not be same as indebtedness, although studies have often confused the two. Recent enquiries reported that gratitude makes individuals seek closeness with others, while indebtedness promotes equity-seeking – seeking of fairness.
In this way gratitude is thought to build relationships, while indebtedness binds them, making them deeper and stronger. Gratitude and indebtedness taken together are thought to promote prosocial behavior through reciprocity, which is the substrate of cooperation between people.
Study author Jenae M. Nelson and her colleagues wanted to explore the roles of gratitude and indebtedness in prosocial behavior. They were particularly interested in feelings of gratitude and indebtedness to God, compared to indebtedness and gratitude to humans.
Unlike with humans, direct reciprocity to God is not really possible, so researchers wanted to know whether indebtedness to God would make one more likely to engage in diffuse reciprocity, compared to those who see themselves as indebted to humans.
They also hypothesized that people who experience a high level of indebtedness will be more likely to perform high-cost helping behaviors. Secure attachment to God was expected to play a moderating role in these effects. Study authors devised two experiments.
Participants of the first experimental study were 659 psychology students attending a religious private university in the U.S. Their average age was 21. 61% were females and 91% were White. The second study was created to replicate the first one on a more diverse sample. It was conducted on 1081 participants recruited using Qualtrics Research Cloud services.
In both studies, participants were randomly divided into 6 groups (3×2 conditions). Each group read a series of 4 vignettes (short texts) that were modified slightly for each group in a way that would induce a specific feeling corresponding to the experimental condition. The feelings induced were indebtedness only, gratitude only or gratitude and indebtedness together. Each of these feeling-inducing sets of vignettes had two variants. In one, the feeling(s) were induced towards God and in the other towards other people.
The 4 vignettes asked the participants to imagine situations where they received gifts. These were receiving help finding employment, getting the needed medical procedure, receiving a Christmas present, and life saved in a car crash. There were variants of these vignettes where the benefactor was God and where it was another human. Variants were also made to induce the desired feelings, corresponding with the experimental conditions of each group of participants. Participants were asked to ‘please put yourself in the situation and imagine how you would respond’.
Participants completed assessments of gratitude to God (the Gratitude to God Scale), transcendent indebtedness to God (T-ITG scale, e.g., “I owe God for my life”), secure attachment to God (the Attachment to God Inventory), and disposition towards gratitude (GRAT-short scale). At the start of the study, participants completed these assessments of traits.
They were then asked to read their assigned set of vignettes. Finally, they completed assessments of states they were in. These included assessments of direct reciprocity (asked how likely they would be to repay the benefactor), relationship proximity (how much closer they felt to the benefactor), responses to receiving the benefit (the Watkins’ affect scale), state gratitude and indebtedness (derived from the previous responses).
In the end, an assessment of diffuse reciprocity was conducted. In study 1, participants were offered an opportunity to write between 1 and 5 encouragement notes to pediatric hospital patients. They were given 5 blank notes that they could use to write these texts. Researchers noted whether they wrote those notes and how many.
In experiment 2, participants were given an opportunity to donate some of the money they received for participating in the experiment to a pediatric hospital. This was expressed as a percentage of the compensation. Regardless of what participants chose in this assessment, they still received their full compensation (but they were not told this would be so at the time they decided whether to donate or not and how much).
Results showed that vignettes were very effective in inducing the desired emotions. Participants who were induced to feel both gratitude and indebtedness had higher levels of relationship proximity and direct reciprocity compared to participants who received only gratitude or only indebtedness inductions.
Participants who were induced to think about benefits from God reported a higher desire to repay the gift received (transcendent indebtedness), but not a higher feeling of being obliged to repay the gift (transactional indebtedness). They also felt closer to others.
However, they did not write more encouragement letters to children (prosocial behavior, diffuse reciprocity). Participants with higher levels of secure attachment to God were found to be more likely to engage in prosocial behaviors when they were induced to feel gratitude and/or indebtedness to God. This effect was found when writing letters (they wrote longer letters), but not with regards to the monetary donation.
“Our results indicate that indebtedness is not inherently good or bad, as has previously been suggested. Rather, indebtedness can be either transactional or transcendent, depending on the four factors outlined in prior work. Further, gratitude paired with indebtedness promoted the best prosocial and relationship outcomes,” the study authors conclude.
The study makes an important contribution to the scientific understanding of prosocial behaviors. However, authors note that all of their participants were from the U.S. and that results on other cultures might not be the same. They also note that the quality of state assessments used was limited.
The paper, “Returning thanks to God and others: prosocial consequences of transcendent indebtedness”, was authored by Jenae M. Nelson, Sam A. Hardy, Dianne Tice, and Sarah A. Schnitker.