The research project, An Attitude for Gratitude, is tackling some important research questions surrounding gratitude. Namely, what is gratitude and how is it conceptualised by the British public? What are people grateful for? How valuable is gratitude perceived to be, and how important is gratitude in relation to other life values such as honesty, compassion, courage and justice? Finally, we examine what kinds of people tend to be grateful, and how an attitude for gratitude might be fostered in U.K society.
It is 9 months since this project began, so where are we now?
What is gratitude and how is it conceptualised? The team is using a variety of methods and approaches to answer this question. Firstly, a prototype analysis has been conducted to examine what features the general public typically associate with the concept of gratitude. This type of analysis involves three distinct stages: 1) participants freely generate features that they think exemplify gratitude, 2) each of these features is rated for centrality (how important it is to the concept) by a second set of participants, and 3) an assessment of whether the centrality of features affects cognition about gratitude.
In this study we demonstrated three important findings. Firstly, the frequencies of negative features of gratitude generated by participants are significantly higher in this U.K sample than in a similar study previously conducted in the U.S.A (Lambert, Graham, & Fincham, 2009). It appears that in the U.K., the layperson associates gratitude with negative characteristics such as indebtedness, obligation, guilt, embarrassment, awkwardness, and ingratitude. Whilst some negative features of gratitude, such as indebtedness and obligation, are named in Lambert et al.’s U.S. study they are mentioned at a much lower frequency.
The second interesting finding concerns gratitude as a virtue. In the final stage of this study we asked participants to make judgements about fictional characters that exhibit grateful features. For example, Person A might be described as “feels appreciative”, “expresses thanks”, and “feels respected”. After reading the description participants respond to the question “How GRATEFUL is this person?” We wanted to demonstrate that fictional characters displaying more central features of gratitude are rated as more grateful than those exhibiting less central features. Crucially, this is what we found.
However, a third noteworthy finding arose. Participants were also asked the question “How VIRTUOUS is this person?”, and we discovered that participants’ responses to this question followed the same linear pattern as the gratitude question. Fictional characters that displayed more central features of gratitude were also deemed more virtuous than those displaying more peripheral or remote features. This prototype analysis has therefore taken a first step towards elucidating whether gratitude is considered a virtue. (This research - Morgan, B., & Gulliford, L. Gratitude in the U.K: A new prototype analysis and a cross-cultural comparison - is currently under submission).
We appreciate, however, that this prototype analysis does not go far enough to answer the question of how gratitude is conceptualised. The prototype technique, whilst effective in defining the features of gratitude, cannot shed light on when gratitude occurs and what conditions must arise for gratitude to be experienced. When we probed the gratitude literature it became apparent that gratitude is not an easy concept to define, and that several controversies beset a simple definition.
For example, should you be grateful to someone who is simply fulfilling the requirements of their job? Should you be grateful for a gift that is of no value to you if it was bestowed with benevolent intention by the benefactor? (And separate from should we be grateful, are we actually grateful?) Is gratitude inherently positive, or is there a shadow side to gratitude? Can you be grateful for a benefit without being grateful to a benefactor? These controversies are discussed at greater length in our recent conceptual paper (Gulliford, L., Morgan, B., & Kristjánsson, K. Recent work on circumscribing gratitude: Some conceptual considerations (under submission)).
To address these controversies, we are employing two different techniques: a questionnaire for adults and children aged 12+; and gratitude stories for Primary school children aged 8-11. The questionnaires involve a series of scenarios. Respondents must judge how grateful they should and would be if this situation were to present itself in real life. For example:
A more subtle yet straight-forward method is being employed in Primary schools which utilises gratitude stories. Pupils follow a story about gratitude that manipulates the same conditions as those seen in the questionnaire, for instance duty (as in scenario 1 above), the value of the benefit, benevolent intentions and so on. At several junctures of the story the children are asked to stop and reflect on what has happened so far and answer questions, such as which characters they believe should be grateful and why, and how grateful should they be
We hope that these two methods will help highlight the situations in which gratitude should be, and is, experienced and under what circumstances gratitude is deemed warranted. We also aim to examine whether these perceptions about gratitude change over the life-span with a comparison of primary school students, secondary school students, and adults.
What are people grateful for?
This research project also aims to examine what people are grateful for. The team began examining this question at the University of Birmingham’s Community Open Day, on June 9th. Members of the public were invited to write thank you letters to loved ones to post in our life-sized red post-box. Braver individuals recorded their messages of thanks in our ‘Thank you film booth!’ The materials acquired from these activities will allow us to collate data on whom people are grateful to and what they are grateful for.
Other data sources for this analysis include the Thank You Film Awards. The Jubilee Centre’s development team have been running a competition for young people in the U.K. Students in schools around the country have been encouraged to think what gratitude means to them, consider who or what they are grateful for, and document this in their own Thank You Films. For our purposes, these films offer a fantastic insight into what young people in the U.K. are grateful for.
Further to this, we hope to utilise material from the Metro newspaper. The Metro newspaper features a ‘Good Deed Feed’ where readers write in to say thank you to those they are grateful to; a thematic analysis of this content would also help to answer the question of what are the British public grateful for?
Is gratitude perceived to be valuable, and if so, how important is gratitude in relation to other life values such as honesty, compassion, courage and justice?
We would also like to know whether gratitude is seen as a valuable quality, and whether it is held in higher or lower esteem than other virtues such as honesty, courage and compassion. We plan to utilise two methods of measuring the value of gratitude; an online card-sorting task for use by the general public and secondary school students, and a values Velcro board for primary school students. These ideas build upon the work of Seligman’s VIA classification of 24 character strengths; the Life Values Inventory (LVI) developed by Crace and Brown (1996); and the Rokeach Value Survey (1973).
The Online Questionnaire (Assessing the Value of Gratitude)
The online questionnaire consists of four steps. The first step involves sorting Seligman and Peterson’s 24 values/character strengths into discrete categories of High Priority, Medium Priority and Low Priority, depending on how important participants think each individual value is to them. The second step involves asking participants to assess the degree to which 7 of the moral virtues (courage, justice/fairness, honesty, compassion, humility/modesty, gratitude and self-discipline) guide their behaviour. Step 3 involves sorting the original 24 values into the categories of Over-attention, Right amount of attention and Under-attention depending on how much attention participants typically give them. Finally, step 4 involves ranking the seven virtues from most to least important.
The Values Velcro board
An interactive activity will be administered in primary schools which involves a hands-on card-sort using a ‘Values Velcro board’. Here, we will focus on a smaller number of values; the 7 virtues of courage, justice/fairness, honesty, compassion, humility/modesty, gratitude, and self-discipline. First of all, the 7 virtues will be described using some easy to follow examples. We will then ask pupils to assess the importance of each virtue in a hands-on card sort (as the adults/older children do in the online questionnaire). Cards will be separated into three distinct categories of Very Important, Quite Important, Not Very Important. Following this, the pupils will be asked to rank the 7 virtues from most to least important. They will do both of these tasks using a Velcro board where the virtues can be picked up and moved around.
We hope that this task will encourage members of the public to stop and think about character and values, to discover what values are important to them, and, if necessary, modify the amount of attention paid to these values in the future.
Ultimately, we hope that the project as a whole will inspire reflection on gratitude, encouraging individuals to focus in on what they do have rather than what is lacking in their lives.