Expressing Thanks Can Deter Socially Disadvantaged People from Fighting Injustice
When someone helps us, gives us a gift, or wishes us well, saying “thanks” probably seems like an indisputably positive and appropriate response. In fact, research suggests that expressing gratitude has a variety of benefits. Beyond promoting positive social interactions, expressing thanks can increase people’s well-being, strengthen relationships, and lead the thankful person to focus on their benefactor’s needs and come up with ways to return the favor. These findings have led self-help authors to strongly encourage people to cultivate gratitude on a daily basis.
However, when we turn to the role that gratitude has played in the relations between social groups, the picture is different. For example, women who protested for their right to vote and Black people who fought for racial equity in the Civil Rights era in the United States were often accused of ingratitude. Today in Europe, refugees who engage in protests are called ungrateful, and immigrants who have gained citizenship are sometimes still expected to show gratitude to the nation who receives them. These examples illustrate that disadvantaged groups have faced explicit demands to express gratitude, especially when they tried to challenge injustice. In fact, insisting that disadvantaged groups show gratitude might have served as a way to calm down protest, ensure that the groups cooperate, or make disadvantaged people acknowledge appreciation for the benefits they received—even when those “benefits” were basic human rights.
Julia Becker and I wondered whether expressing gratitude to socially-advantaged group members does, in fact, reduce disadvantaged groups’ protests against injustice. We thought that, when someone who belongs to a socially disadvantaged group—such as a lesbian woman or a black man—expresses thanks toward someone who belongs to a socially advantaged group (such as a heterosexual woman or a white man), saying “thanks” might prevent them from confronting potential discriminatory behavior from the advantaged group member. In other words, expressions of thanks might “pacify” members of socially disadvantaged groups.
We tested this idea in a series of studies conducted in Germany and the United States. The participants in these studies were members of low-power groups in various contexts. For example, some participants were employees who interacted with a manager, some were students interacting with a professor, and some were women interacting with men. In all studies, we constructed the experimental situation so that the low-power participant was treated in an unfair or offensive way by the higher power person, for example, by making a disparaging remark. Later, the high-power group member provided some kind of benefit to the participant, for example, by giving the participants the reward that he had received for participating in the study.
In some studies, participants could decide whether to express gratitude to the high-power group member, while in other studies, they were either required to express gratitude or were not allowed to express gratitude. Next, we measured how much the participants were willing to protest or object to the high-power person’s unjust behavior or the extent they actually protested (for example, by complaining about the person or confronting them directly).
Overall, low-power participants who had expressed gratitude to the high-power group member protested less than participants who had not expressed thanks. Merely expressing gratitude to an unfair high-power group member reduced participants’ willingness to stand up for themselves.
Additional analyses suggested that this “pacifying” effect occurred because expressing gratitude led the participants to forgive the higher-power person. And because forgiveness can create the impression that justice has been restored, the participants may have felt less need to protest.
So, although expressing gratitude can lead to positive effects in situations where people have more-or-less equal power, our research suggests that expressing thanks can lead to harmful effects when people are not socially equal. The positive, other-oriented, and reciprocal nature of gratitude expressions can encourage disadvantaged group members to censor their objection or criticism of the injustice they experience.
How can this problem be avoided? One possible way for disadvantaged groups to avoid this pacifying effect may be to refrain from expressing gratitude in certain situations. Of course, this does not mean that disadvantaged group members should stop thanking people, because then they would be denied the benefits of expressing gratitude. However, our research suggests that, if you are a member of a socially disadvantaged group, you might want to be selective about who and when you thank.
In addition, by learning that it might sometimes be protective for disadvantaged group members to not express gratitude, advantaged group members could lower their expectations that they will be thanked (for example, when doing volunteer work). In that way, they can avoid frustration if they feel like they don’t receive as much gratitude as they think they deserve.
This research is only a first step in studying gratitude in situations that involve social inequality. The social norms that encourage members of disadvantaged groups to express gratitude in unfair situations certainly deserve more critical reflection, both by researchers and in our everyday lives as well.
For Further Reading
Ksenofontov, I., & Becker, J. C. (2019). The Harmful Side of Thanks: Thankful Responses to High-Power Group Help Undermine Low-Power Groups’ Protest. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167219879125
Inna Ksenofontov is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Osnabrueck and the University of Hagen in Germany. She studies how seemingly prosocial relations between social groups can solidify social hierarchies and how disadvantaged group members’ attitudes and behaviors might be involved in the maintenance of social inequality.