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Gratitude's Double-Edged Sword

How Thanks Can Prompt Selfishness and the Proper Way to Express It


The simple act of saying thanks can be more nuanced than we think. While 'thank you' remains one of the most powerful phrases, how, when, and where we use it can significantly impact the dynamics of our relationships.

1. Expressing Gratitude Can Make the Other Be More Selfish

In many situations in life, we encounter competition and negotiation. During these scenarios, both parties may use every resource to gain an advantage, including expressing gratitude. A series of experiments by Yip et al. (2018) showed that when sellers expressed gratitude for the prices offered by buyers, these buyers subsequently acted more selfishly, offering even lower prices. This was observed not only in a backpack-buying scenario but also in landlord-tenant rent negotiations. Thus, in competitive or negotiation situations, expressing gratitude might make the other party consider their interests more, leading them to make more self-centered decisions.

2. Why Does Gratitude Trigger Selfishness?

Why we are treated even worse when we carry good intentions. As suggested by Yip et al. (2018), it may be because others misinterpreted our emotions. The Emotional Social Information (EASI) model points out that in negotiation settings, people's decisions are heavily influenced by the other's emotional expression. When someone hears our thanks, they might assume we're forgiving, leading them to think, "Even if I act more selfishly, they'll tolerate it," thereby promoting opportunistic behavior.

3. The Right Way to Express Gratitude: Being Kind with Clear Boundaries

After reading this, it seems like we're advocating for not expressing gratitude. Not at all. The negative impacts of gratitude only emerge when there's interest conflicts between two parties. In cooperative relationships, like friendships, expressing thanks can effectively bring people closer. However, in a competitive or negotiating context, it's wise to be cautious about how and when we express gratitude, or to avoid saying "thank you" habitually. If you ever feel someone is taking advantage of your goodwill, be clear and firm in setting boundaries. After all, being polite and kind doesn't mean we're willing to be exploited.

4. Expressing Gratitude Has its Techniques

With proper ways of expression, we can even boost the effect of our gratitude. Park et al. (2020) compared the effects of two forms of gratitude on people's perceptions. One form emphasized the effort of the helper (e.g., "Thank you for spending so much time"), while the other highlighted the help provided to us (e.g., "Thank you for giving me so much advice"). The findings showed that people tend to prefer the latter form of gratitude. The former might induce negative emotions and even have an adverse impact on relationships.

This could be because emphasizing someone's effort may suggest that our gain came at their loss, which may suggest a potential inequality in the relationship. In contrast, expressing gratitude that underscores the help and support one received often makes the helper feel they've successfully met our needs, enhancing their mood and fostering a better relationship (Park et al., 2020).

5. Praise the Other Party

Rather than emphasizing one's gain, it's more effective to praise the other party for their help. Algoe et al. (2016) suggested that only talking about how they benefited us doesn't necessarily resonate with the helper, as it might seem that there's no reciprocation of the gratitude. Instead, praising the other party leads to positive emotions, making it a key factor in conveying gratitude effectively.

6. Private Expressions of Gratitude are Preferred

Dunaetz and Lanum (2021) compared public vs. private expressions of gratitude, revealing a preference for the latter. Their research showed people appreciated personal, private gratitude expressions most, followed by written ones, then within small groups, and least of all, large public ones. The reason behind this is that private gratitude, such as personal visits or long chats, requires more effort, and the effort makes it seem more sincere.

Dunaetz, D.R., & Lanum, P. (2021). What Forms of Gratitude Expression are Most Appreciated? Applications for Christian Leaders. Journal of Applied Christian Leadership, 12(2), 55-70.

Helping others always involves an investment, whether tangible or intangible. Truly grateful individuals recognize the value of these contributions and offer positive feedback. Understanding and expressing gratitude can be essential in relationships. However, it's also important to recognize when and how to convey thanks, especially in competitive scenarios. The key is to maintain a balance: be genuinely thankful but also set clear boundaries. Being kind and polite should never be mistaken for allowing oneself to be exploited. Embrace gratitude, but with clarity and self-awareness.

By: Hans Zhang

Mental Health Counseling Intern


Algoe, S. B., Kurtz, L. E., & Hilaire, N. M. (2016). Putting the “You” in “Thank You”: Examining Other-Praising Behavior as the Active Relational Ingredient in Expressed Gratitude. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 7(7), 658–666.

Dunaetz, D.R., & Lanum, P. (2021). What Forms of Gratitude Expression are Most Appreciated? Applications for Christian Leaders. Journal of Applied Christian Leadership, 12(2), 55-70

Keltner, D., & Haidt, J. (1999). Social Functions of Emotions at Four Levels of Analysis. Cognition & Emotion, 13(5), 505–521.

Knutson, B. (1996). Facial expressions of emotion influence interpersonal trait inferences. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 20(3), 165–182.

Park, Y., Visserman, M.L., Sisson, N., Le, B.M., Stellar, J., & Impett, E. (2020). How can I thank you? Highlighting the benefactor’s responsiveness or costs when expressing gratitude. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.

Rhoads, S. A., & Marsh, A. A. (2023). Doing Good and Feeling Good: Relationships Between Altruism and Well-being for Altruists, Beneficiaries, and Observers. World Happiness Report.

van Kleef, G. A. (2009). How Emotions Regulate Social Life. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 18(3), 184–188.

Yip, J.A., Lee, K.K., Chan, C., & Brooks, A.W. (2017). Thanks For Nothing: Expressing Gratitude Invites Exploitation By Competitors. ACR North American Advances.

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