Gratitude is the warm feeling you get when someone helps you in a significant way out of kind intent. Many studies show that gratitude improves not only your well-being but also your relationships with people. It can inspire you to be more kind to others, sensitive to their needs, and helpful to them, bringing joy to you and people around you.

However, it may at times produce less desirable results. We reason that if gratitude makes you more sensitive and responsive to others, might it also make you more likely to do their bidding? We call this idea the social alignment perspective of gratitude, which states that gratitude may make you more prone to follow (or align with) social forces such as social norms, practices, rules, and conventions. The perspective further explains that a reason why grateful people can become more compliant is because they wish to keep relationships positive and conflict-free.

Gratitude and Social Alignment

This perspective implies that gratitude may encourage obedience, even to the extent of obeying orders that are objectionable. To test this idea, we led some participants to feel gratitude and others to feel other states such as neutral or joy. We used several methods to make participants feel gratitude, such as recalling a personal grateful event or the experimenter doing a favor for the participant.

To measure obedience, we needed a procedure that would not cause harm to humans, animals, or property. We adapted a creative procedure that has been used by other researchers. Imagine this scene: We give the participant a coffee grinder and several cups, each containing a living, wriggling worm. Participants can see that the worms are real and alive. We switch on the grinder, which produces the unmistakable grinding noise, to show that it is also real and working very well. 

Then, in a serious tone, similar to prior obedience experiments, the experimenter issues a command to the participant to throw as many worms as they would like into the grinder, to be ground up. No reason is given to participants why they should do as ordered. If they ask, we simply repeat the command. The number of worms thrown into the grinder is the measure of obedience.

In actual fact—and so you don't lose any sleep tonight!—no worm reached the blades. They fell into a stopper and were unharmed. (The worms were also well-taken care of and well-fed by our lab assistants!)

In four different studies, participants in the gratitude condition threw in more worms than those in other conditions. And, in case you were worried, all participants were thoroughly informed afterwards—told about the purpose of the study and that no worms were harmed.

Furthermore, we found evidence that the need to maintain social harmony could be causing the increased obedience. If the need for social harmony is the key, reducing this need should reduce the effect—and that's exactly what we found. In one of our studies, when some of the grateful participants were reminded that social harmony might have drawbacks, they demonstrated less obedience (threw in fewer worms) than the other grateful participants. Hence, we speculate that a reason why gratitude can make a person more obedient is that it focuses them on having positive relationships, and they feel a greater need to keep relationships with people pleasant. So, if someone tells them to do something, they do it, in order to maintain a good relationship.

Is Gratitude Therefore Bad?

What do these findings imply? First, they do not in any way suggest that gratitude makes you malicious. Much research shows that gratitude increases helpfulness, kindness, and compassion. The findings also do not suggest that gratitude can make you murder a person. That would be too much of a leap from killing worms!

What the findings might imply is that gratitude might render a person more likely to obey commands to do acts they perceive as minor. This fits with other studies we have done showing that gratitude can make a person more likely to pursue the goals of others, mimic others' behaviors, and conform to popular trends. Perhaps, in real life, our findings might help explain how some gangs recruit members by doing them favors (offering financial support or approval). However, we emphasize caution in extrapolating these findings to claims that gratitude may inspire atrocious actions, which are caused by many factors.

Overall, we think that gratitude is a positive emotion with many positive effects on personal well-being and social relationships, but it may also at times make one more susceptible to undesirable social influence.

For Further Reading

Tong, E. M. W., Ng, C. X., Ho, J. B. H., Yap, I. J. L., Chua, E., Ng, J. W. X., Ho, D. Z. Y., & Diener, E. (2021). Gratitude facilitates obedience: New evidence for the social alignment perspective. Emotion, 21(6), 1302–1316.

Eddie M. W. Tong is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology, National University of Singapore. His main area of expertise is emotion, with special focus on positive emotions and appraisal theories.