Newswise — People felt less gratitude when they read about receiving a favor along with many other individuals, as opposed to a favor that was only given to themselves, according to a Baylor University study. This is because people tend to think that benefactors who help them as individuals care more about them, specifically, compared to benefactors who help them in a group.

Study participants also were more likely to have a higher opinion of a benefactor who gave an individual favor rather than a favor to a group, said study author Jo-Ann Tsang, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology and neuroscience.

Previous studies of gratitude have focused on individual benefits, Tsang said. Research has found that gratitude is associated with better mental and physical health, as well as with behavior that benefits others. But this is the first study to examine gratitude for a group-based benefit compared to an individual one, she said.

The research — “(Un)special Favors: Gratitude for Group-Based Benefits” — is published in The Journal of Positive Psychology.

The research consisted of two studies.

STUDY 1

In this study, 122 participants completed questionnaires about two scenarios — one in a workplace, the other at a university.

In the first scenario, half of the participants were assigned randomly to read about an employee who is granted the individual favor of a day off during a busy time of the year in order to attend a conference to help the employee’s career.

In a variation of the first scenario, the other half of the participants read about a boss who not only gives the employee the day off, but also gives four other employees a group favor — the day off for the conference.

In the second scenario, half the participants read about a student who has a test in a difficult class. The student asks if the professor can postpone the student’s exam. The professor gives a personal favor — two additional days to study.

In a variation of the second scenario, the professor tells the student he is going to postpone the test for the entire class as a group because he has found out he is going out of town, so students will have two additional study days.

RESULTS FOR STUDY 1: Across those two different scenarios, participants reported more gratitude for personal benefits and were more likely to want to reciprocate. Participants viewed the benefits as larger and less selfish when they were personal compared to when they were for a group. Participants also rated benefactors who gave individual benefits as having fewer negative qualities and more positive ones, in contrast to benefactors who gave benefits to the group.

STUDY 2

In this study, 124 participants were assigned randomly to one of four scenarios — all involving a student seeking a test postponement, a professor who agrees and a favor that is either individual or for the group. However, this time, the professor’s motivation — selfish or sympathetic — is revealed to the participants.

First scenario: The student gets a postponement and is quite certain the professor does the personal favor in order to get good teaching evaluations at semester’s end.

Second scenario: The professor gives the student two more days to study as a personal favor out of sympathy.

Third scenario: The professor postpones the test as a group favor for the class in order to get good teaching evaluations.

Fourth scenario: The professor postpones the test for the group out of sympathy.

RESULTS FOR STUDY 2:  Students felt a great deal of gratitude and moderate indebtedness for the favor regardless of whether individual or group. As in Study 1, they viewed the benefactor positively. They rated the benefit as moderate in size, but not very costly, and they reported that they would be more likely to return the favor.

This time, the direct statement of the professor’s motive changed participants’ responses. They responded with more gratitude and indebtedness to a compassionate benefactor than they did to a selfish one. This suggests that the different responses to individual and group favors in Study 1 were due to differences in perceived motivations.

The results are in some ways puzzling, Tsang said.

“Group-based benefits are often more costly and larger in terms of resources,” she said. “For instance, in the boss example, it would take more resources and benefit more people for the boss to send the entire department to a conference compared to one individual. Yet participants rated the individual favor as no less costly — and as a bigger favor.

“Likewise, there is no apparent reason why benefactor motivations should affect assessments of benefit size. An exam postponed for selfish reasons has the same outcome as one postponed out of benevolence,” Tsang said. “But being singled out by one’s boss for a conference is perceived as a bigger benefit because it reflects more positively on the relationship between the boss and employee.”

Some limitations of these studies include the use of imaginary scenarios, Tsang said.

“People aren’t always accurate in imagining how they would think or feel in different circumstances,” she said. “Another limitation may be that both scenarios used groups that participants didn’t necessarily care much about, such as a work group or a class. Perhaps when someone benefits a group that is very important to us, such as our family, we might experience more gratitude for important group favors than for individual favors.”

SEE ORIGINAL STUDY