Gratitude: The Emotion That Reduces Competitive Behaviour

June 19, 2020

The outbreak of COVID-19 has brought upon tremendous stress on millions of people worldwide. Health concerns, financial uncertainties, and a prolonged and potentially irreversible departure from one’s normal way of life all contribute to a trying experience. While some people react to these stressors with acts of generosity and kindness, others behave in a selfish and competitive manner: hoarding supplies, violating social distancing regulations, or posting others’ violations online for public ridicule and name calling.

How can we stave off competitive impulses at a time when solidarity and cooperation are most needed? In our recent research that was published in Cognition and Emotion, we found that feelings of gratitude may play a key role.

Gratitude is the positive emotion that people feel when they benefit from the intentional and thoughtful actions of another person. Past research has shown that feeling grateful can spur cooperation and coordination between individuals in neutral and friendly environments. In this new project, we sought to provide a stronger test by looking at the effect of gratitude in social interactions that have already turned antagonistic. Since competitive and destructive intents tend to be the strongest here, we wondered whether feelings of gratitude can suppress these ‘dark’ urges.

In the first study, participants were invited to play a game with a partner. Each participant controlled a ‘trucking company’ and tried to maximise its profit. Specifically, they needed to decide which routes to send the trucks on in order to reach the destination. Only when a truck has reached the destination, could participants send in the next. Each truck that reached the destination brought in profit to the company and, just like in real life, the shorter the routes the trucks took, the more the company earned.

The shortest route, however, was shared between the two players. This gave the players opportunities to cooperate, by using tit-for-tat strategies, or to compete, by blocking the route with their own truck or a gate they controlled.

As the game began, participants quickly realised that their partner was behaving very competitively. So did they retaliate by becoming competitive as well? Our results suggested that it depended on how they were feeling.

In a seemingly unrelated task earlier, participants recounted a past event where they felt grateful, joyous, or neutral. Hence, participants entered the trucking game with different feelings induced. We found that participants who felt grateful were the least vindictive against the competitive partner, who was actually a set of pre-scripted computer moves.

We know that this effect was not due to simply a good feeling because participants induced to feel joyous behaved as competitively as those with a neutral feeling. In other words, gratitude uniquely inhibited competitive impulses.

In the second study, we recruited online participants. After the same emotion induction procedure, participants competed with a partner, who again was a computer programme, in a language proficiency task. They were told that only the winner would have a chance to enter an attractive lottery, if the winner also excelled in a follow-up test. In our experiment, all participants were designed to lose and were given the job of preparing the follow-up test for the winning partner.

This presented a chance for participants to secretly sabotage the partner, for they could choose unfairly challenging questions to reduce the partner’s odds of winning the lottery. Rationally speaking, participants would gain nothing from such sabotage; they were already out of the game. But many succumbed to the competitive urge nonetheless. More importantly, we found that feeling grateful prior to entering the games reduced participants’ sabotaging behaviour.

It is important to note that at the end of the experiments, participants were thoroughly explained of the purposes of the studies and the deceptions involved. In the case of Study 2, all participants were given an equal chance to enter the lottery.

There is a reason behind the old saying that gratitude is the parent of all virtues. Feeling grateful reduces one’s egoistic, selfish needs and engenders a more community- or other- focused outlook in life. Indeed, it has been well-established that gratitude promotes prosocial behaviour and cooperation. Our new findings extend this line of evidence by showing that gratitude may arrest a downward spiral of mutual competition in social interactions that have already turned sour or hostile.

What implications do these findings have in the COVID-19 situation? Perhaps if we spend more time to think about the help and little acts of kindness we have received in life, and be grateful for them, we are more likely to become caring and supportive members of the community. Instead of being offended by others’ unintentional transgressions, which is made all too easy by the COVID-19 related stressors, we could react to them with empathy and understanding. Besides, research has also shown that feeling gratitude boosts one’s psychological well-being and life satisfaction. Be good to others. Be good to ourselves.

Practicing gratitude is certainly not a panacea to all our problems. But in this pandemic, we can use all the help we can get.

By Assistant Professor Jia Lile, NUS Psychology.