Research reveals autonomous individuals dislike gratitude and explores connection to interpersonal relationships

December 13, 2016, American University

When you receive a gift from someone, do you have feelings of gratitude? Or do you feel obliged and burdened to reciprocate the gesture? Not everyone experiences gratitude in response to the generosity of others, according to new psychology research in the journal Cognition and Emotion.

What could temper for some people? One answer could have to do with autonomous personal style, one's sense of independence and self-reliance.

In one of the first published results examining in relation to gratitude, American University associate psychology professor Anthony Ahrens and his graduate students report on three studies that involved more than 500 participants. They used a self-report measure to determine levels of autonomy. Across the studies, individuals higher in autonomy (not wanting to depend on others or be depended on) experienced less gratitude, and they also valued gratitude less.

"There's nothing wrong with self-reliance and valuing autonomy. The concern is, to what extent could that interfere with the processes that bind people together?" Ahrens said.

Gratitude = relationship glue

Gratitude has been widely studied in psychology, and researchers are finding evidence for its many benefits. It helps to build relationships. It's been associated with physical and mental well-being. In Ahrens' research, autonomy was characterized by responses to questions about topics such as how much respondents liked to rely on others for help or to have others depend on them.

In the first study, participants reacted to receiving a hypothetical gift or favor, with the more autonomous individuals feeling less positive about receiving a hypothetical gift from a friend. In the second study, the results reaffirmed higher autonomous individuals' relative dislike of gratitude. The researchers went a step further in the third study to gain more insight into whether autonomy could interfere with compassion. Just as hypothesized, more autonomous individuals were more focused on presenting themselves well and less so on supporting others in relationships.

"Relationship quality could suffer without expressions of gratitude. A person who is more autonomous might misinterpret a well-meaning gesture by her partner. A compassionate action could be seen as intrusive instead of supportive," Ahrens said. "Other research has shown autonomy could lead to an aversion to any form of reliance on others, making individuals vulnerable to depression."

Next steps

Ahrens theorizes that people who value independence to a high degree dislike gratitude and think it could make them weak. The next steps in the research will be to explore certain cultural messages related to autonomy.

"Contemporary American culture emphasizes autonomy," Ahrens said. "It's possible cultural messages lead people to value autonomy and less so gratitude. Examining how autonomy and gratitude interact in the interpersonal realm will hopefully lend insight into how best to cultivate the positive experiences of shared connection, healthy independence, and increased emotional well-being."

Explore further: Are your kids thankful?

Related Stories

Are your kids thankful?

November 24, 2016
(HealthDay)—Thanksgiving is the perfect time for parents to teach their children about gratitude, an expert says.

Buying experiences makes you more grateful, generous

November 14, 2016
On Thanksgiving, many of us take a moment to reflect on what we're grateful for—and we get notable rewards for doing so. Feeling gratitude leads to important benefits, like increased happiness and social cohesion, better ...

Sense of gratitude counters life dissatisfaction in psychological study

March 25, 2015
Everyone knows that money can't buy happiness – but what might make rich people happier is revealed in the current issue of The Journal of Positive Psychology.

Gratitude—'A vaccine against impulsiveness'

April 14, 2016
What small thing are you grateful for today? Me? I am grateful that David DeSteno, professor of psychology in the College of Science, agreed to postpone our interview on Tuesday about his new paper because I wasn't feeling ...

Feelings of gratitude increase the consumption of sweets

August 19, 2015
Gratitude is universally considered a social good—the warm feeling that results from a kindness received.

Researcher discusses link between positive emotions and physical health

October 20, 2016
Can having good feelings be good for your health? A new study by U of T Mississauga researcher Jennifer Stellar is investigating the effects that positive emotions might have on our physical well-being.

Recommended for you

Depression-induced inflammation during pregnancy may impact newborns

July 18, 2018
The physiological impacts of depression on pregnant mothers may affect babies while in the womb and lead to changes in the behaviour and biology of newborns, finds new King's College London research.

A bad mood may help your brain with everyday tasks

July 18, 2018
New research found that being in a bad mood can help some people's executive functioning, such as their ability to focus attention, manage time and prioritize tasks. The same study found that a good mood has a negative effect ...

Depression during pregnancy rises in a generation

July 18, 2018
Anxiety and depressive symptoms during pregnancy have risen by 51 per cent within a generation according to findings from a major study by the University of Bristol published last week [Friday 13 July].

Forty percent of people have a fictional first memory, says study

July 17, 2018
Researchers have conducted one of the largest surveys of people's first memories, finding that nearly 40 per cent of people had a first memory which is fictional.

Researchers explore how information enters our brains

July 17, 2018
Think you're totally in control of your thoughts? Maybe not as much as you think, according to a new San Francisco State University study that examines how thoughts that lead to actions enter our consciousness.

Celebrating positives improves classroom behavior and mental health

July 17, 2018
Training teachers to focus their attention on positive conduct and to avoid jumping to correct minor disruption improves child behaviour, concentration and mental health.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.