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An Attitude for Gratitude

The Jubilee Centre for Character and Values is examining the importance of personal and workplace values. One of our flagship research projects examines the emphasis placed on a number of life values, such as honesty, self-control, gratitude and fairness. By engaging with people across the UK we hope to develop a picture of these values and disseminate reports of our findings.

As the project progresses, details of how the public can get involved with the research will be posted here.

If you wish to contact the researchers involved with this project, please see the below contact information.

Dr. Blaire Morgan - b.e.morgan@bham.ac.uk

Dr. Liz Gulliford - l.z.gulliford@bham.ac.uk

Big Question: How do we, as a nation, understand gratitude? 

This project examines gratitude both theoretically and empirically. We are undertaking an interdisciplinary conceptual analysis of gratitude that brings together theological, philosophical and psychological understandings of gratitude.

Researchers have offered several explanations and definitions of the concept of gratitude, for example that gratitude is an emotion, a disposition, a personality trait, a habit. Some argue that it involves a specific relationship between a benefactor (who bestows a benefit), a benefit (a gift, favour etc.), and a beneficiary (who receives the benefit), whilst others argue that people can experience a more general sense of gratitude, for example to the world or to God. 

Alongside a top-down conceptual analysis we will conduct a bottom-up empirical study exploring how gratitude is conceptualised by the lay-person. We will assess what UK citizens believe gratitude is and what kinds of features they think make up the concept of gratitude. We will examine how these conceptualisations relate to the definitions offered by researchers.


An Attitude for Gratitude – 9 months in

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.

Approach

Too much existing empirical work has superimposed a pre-existing definition of gratitude onto research. We will endeavour to discover lay peoples’ concepts of gratitude in order to build a working definition based on how peopleactually conceive of gratitude as opposed to how philosophers and psychologists believe the construct should be comprehended. 

Our first study, a prototype analysis, is based upon a series of experiments that were conducted in Florida, where the researchers were similarly interested in the lay-person’s perception of gratitude. This study allowed the researchers to highlight 52 attributes that are agreed upon as key features of gratitude. Our goal is to similarly highlight key attributes of gratitude as decided upon by participants in the UK. This will provide us with our own working definition of gratitude as well as allowing for a cross-cultural comparison of gratitude features. 

Using the conceptual understandings gleaned from this study we will begin an ambitious research project in which we will survey around 10,000 individuals in the UK, across a wide range of ages to gain a broader understanding of what gratitude is, as well as when, how and with whom it happens. We will employ a variety of ways of sampling participants for this large scale project.

Research Questions

We seek to understand:

What gratitude is

What do people in British Society believe gratitude is? Do they perceive gratitude to involve a specific benefit that is bestowed onto someone by some generous benefactor, or do they also believe gratitude encompasses feeling grateful for one’s life, nature, or things that are cannot be attributed to a specific benefactor? What kinds of situations lead to gratitude? Must an actual benefit be involved or is the intention to benefit another enough to arouse gratitude? Must the benefactor intend to bestow the benefit or can an accidental benefit arouse gratitude? The concept of gratitude may not be as clear cut as one may think!

What value is placed on gratitude?

Is gratitude thought to be an important value in a person’s character? Does receiving gratitude from another make you like them more? Is gratitude important in social relationships?

What kind of people tend to be grateful?

What other characteristics are associated with gratitude? Does having a religious affiliation make value gratitude more? Does living through hardship make you more grateful for what you have?

How gratitude has been applied to society as a means of promoting the common good

What policies and practices are in place to promote gratitude? Do schools run projects or assignments which focus on values such as gratitude?

How gratitude could be further applied in society to foster the common good

What do the people living in Britain think can be done to promote gratitude? What would be an effective way of promoting gratitude?

Methods

First, we will be undertaking a prototype analysis of gratitude which will be split into two parts. Part 1 will involve asking participants to list down all features they associate with the concept of gratitude. They will also be asked to rate the positivity or negativity of these gratitude features on a scale ranging from very positive to very negative. The list of features we obtain will be coded and categorised by the researchers to highlight key features of gratitude.

Part 2 will employ a separate set of participants. These participants will be presented with the list of key features of gratitude that were obtained from part 1 of the study and asked to rate the importance of each of these features. That is, they will be asked to pick out which are the most central features of gratitude and which are the less important, peripheral, features of gratitude. This data will then be used to rank the key features of gratitude from most central to most peripheral.

Having highlighted the key features of gratitude we will be a position to create a survey using the definition of gratitude that will have emerged from our first study, to find out how gratitude is valued by the British public, what sorts of people seem to be especially grateful (and for what), what kinds of people are less grateful (and why), and suggestions for how gratitude might be fostered in daily life. This question will aim to answer the kinds of questions highlighted above to attain a comprehension view of gratitude in Britain. 

Expected Outcomes

The people who take part in our research will be challenged to think abstractly about the concept of gratitude, as well as reflect practically on the gratitude they themselves experience and express to others. We hope they will become more aware of gratitude and of why it is a vital value both to the self and to wider society. We are very optimistic that the findings from this major project will attract the interest of the media, community leaders and policy makers, with the understanding that gratitude can be cultivated in schools and communities in the UK to enrich the quality of our individual and community life.

Latest News

Data Collection:

We have now completed our data collection for the Vignette Questionnaires; we have managed to obtain 600 responses. The prize draw for £500 of Amazon vouchers has been conducted and the winner was a Doctoral Student from the University’s School of Chemical Engineering.

In terms of our Gratitude stories, we have several additional schools that are interested in using our stories and workbooks in one of their lessons. We currently have just over 100 workbooks collected ready for analysis, and plan to extend this to 250 by the end of this year.

We are also testing our Vignette Questionnaires with Secondary School pupils in Cheshire. This school has kindly offered to test all 250 Vignette Questionnaires and we hope to have all the data before the Christmas holidays.

Data Analysis:

We are currently analysing the Vignette Questionnaire responses using factor analysis. The descriptive statistics from our data set are extremely promising and look as though they may support our initial hypotheses. For example, participants tend to strongly agree that they would be grateful to those who are simply fulfilling the requirements of their job. However, they believe they would experience more gratitude for those who go above and beyond the call of duty. We hope to have a refined factor analysis of the results completed very soon.

Preparation of Materials:

The next stage of our project aims to look at the value of gratitude; is gratitude perceived as important by the British public, and where does it fit in relation to other values such as honesty and compassion? To examine this issue, we have composed a 'Valuable Values Questionnaire’. This questionnaire is made up of four steps which assess (1) how important a set of 24 values are, (2) how much attention is typically paid to these values, (3) the rank of a subset of these values, and (4) how often these values guide people’s behaviour. This questionnaire has been refined and is now ready to test. We plan to recruit participants through targeting businesses across the UK and have already recruited one business local to the Birmingham area. 

Papers:

Our submission to the Journal of Value Inquiry has now been printed in the completed journal (Gulliford, L., Morgan, B., & Kristjánsson, K. (2013). Recent Work on the Concept of Gratitude in Philosophy and Psychology. The Journal of Value Inquiry, 47(3), 283–317). Our second paper, a prototype analysis and cross-cultural comparison of gratitude, has been submitted to the Journal of Positive Psychology and is currently under review. We have also been approached by our colleague, David Carr, to work on a collaborative paper which will tackle issues about Gratitude and Education. This paper is currently being drafted.

Conferences:

We recently presented our current work at a Gratitude conference based at the University of Birmingham. The conference brought together leading names in the field from philosophy and psychology. The interdisciplinary approach to this conference was a big success. We also gained invaluable feedback on our Attitude for Gratitude Project.

We have also submitted three further conference abstracts that have been accepted. The first for the Jubilee Centre Conference which will take place in Oxford in January 2014, and the second two for a Positive Psychology and Well-being conference which will take place at the University of Melbourne in February 2014. We hope to utilise these conferences to disseminate our recent research findings.

Research funding:

Following our recent success at the University’s Community Open Day, we secured a small research grant from the ESRC. The grant, of just under £2,000, was awarded to Blaire Morgan and Liz Gulliford to run a gratitude-themed event in a prestigious location in Birmingham City Centre. This event took place on the 9th November 2013 in the International Convention Centre and was a great success. The event allowed us to publicise our gratitude research, and the Jubilee Centre as a whole, to a wide and varied audience.

We have also been successful in another small research bursary from Universitas-21 for the amount of £1500. This money will allow us to travel to Melbourne in February 2014 to present at the University of Melbourne’s Positive Psychology and Well-being conference and build collaborative links with the Positive Psychology Centre in their Graduate School of Education.

Further to this, we have also applied for a research grant from the British Academy to replicate some of our work in Australia; this will allow for a great cross-cultural comparison of gratitude. The measures we hope to replicate include a prototype analysis of gratitude and the vignette questionnaire. We should find out whether we have been successful in this bid by March 2014.

Media:

The ‘Attitude for Gratitude’ project featured on BBC TV and radio in June 2013. Click here to see an online blog from the BBC that describes our project.