SALT LAKE CITY — If you've put off writing a thank-you note because you want to get the words just right, stop dawdling. If you figure it won't matter anyway, you're wrong. And if you think you don't have time, you might want to pencil a few minutes into your hectic schedule.
That nice gesture yields dividends to everyone involved, according to a new study in the journal Psychological Science that finds people miscalculate the benefits of writing to someone to express gratitude. And they overvalue the importance of getting it exactly right.
The researchers, from the University of Chicago and University of Texas at Austin, found those who write such letters underestimate the happiness the gesture will bring the recipient. They overestimate how awkward the recipient will feel. And, they are wrong about how pleasantly surprising such a letter will be to the recipient, guessing it won't matter much.
The writers miscalculate something else, too: How good it feels to express heartfelt gratitude.
The biggest barrier to doing nice things — what researchers call "prosocial behaviors" — is people's judgments about themselves and how others will view them. They measure themselves on such competencies as how well they'd write the letter or perform a kind deed. Those receiving the letters don't use the same measure, says Nicholas Epley, one of the authors and a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
Recipients gauge warmth. And the fact someone bothered to write — forget the words — feels pretty toasty.
"We see it over and over," says Epley. "I think the thing that surprised me a little was how robust these results were."
"It was even more positive for recipients than we expected," adds co-author Amit Kumar, a graduate student at the University of Chicago during the research and now an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
"It's a good idea to go out and do it, to overcome those barriers to writing a letter. It may be the act itself that matters, not the words. It improves our own happiness and the wellbeing of another person more than we anticipate."
A good life
Kumar and Epley are interested — both personally and professionally — in "how to live a good life." They study it. They teach it. And they absorb lessons, too, applying them to their own lives.
Recently, Epley's daughter, 2, had open-heart surgery and spent three days in the hospital. As he walked though the hospital hallway on his way to get a beverage, Epley glanced in a room at a woman he knew was a single mom, sitting with her child.
Epley knows it's hard to tear yourself away from a sick kid. "She's probably not going to get dinner; I should get her something," is the thought that passed through his mind.
His brain started kicking up reasons why he couldn't solve the woman's meal dilemma. He didn't know what she wanted. She'd think it was weird. It wasn't his business.
That's the thing about the human brain, he notes. It generates excuses and predictions that may be quite inaccurate about how someone will respond. He's studied the issue a lot and knows people usually undervalue how others will perceive their contribution. They are more dismissive and harder on themselves than others are likely to be.
He dropped off a sandwich and hash browns. And while the woman was surprised, she was also pleased and grateful.
"I probably wouldn't have done that before," says Epley, talking about how his research impacts his own behavior. "What has changed for me is that when I feel gratitude, I am much more likely to acknowledge it now. Our research doesn't suggest you need to go around thanking people or writing notes, but when you feel it, you should say it."
Kumar agrees. "I have started expressing gratitude more often. One powerful generalization that comes from studying it: Simple, seemingly small changes in our lives can make a difference in how we feel and how we treat others."
So he now keeps cards handy so he can write notes when he gets the urge to express gratitude to someone. "I figure having cards on hand makes it more likely," he says.
The idea that being prosocial has benefits isn't new. The trick is getting past barriers, including perception. Epley says plenty of research shows people tend not to talk to strangers when they're on trains or in lines, for instance, even when they'd be happier if they did.
The barrier to engagement is belief that the other person won't want to talk to you, that they'd find it "unpleasant and would be happier if they kept to themselves."
Research generally debunks that.
The findings of the new study are based on a series of four experiments, some involving students on Epley's campus, others involving research participants elsewhere. They asked participants to write a heartfelt letter to someone who had helped them or otherwise made them grateful. They also asked for a prediction about how receiving the letter would make the individual feel, as well as the recipient's email address to follow up. After recipients received the expressions of gratitude, the researchers contacted them to get their reaction.
Most of the letters were sent by email, but some were handwritten and mailed. In some cases, the expression of gratitude was delivered by phone.
For the most part, participants guessed their recipient would "be really happy and feel really good," says Epley. "They felt even better than that." They did not feel a little awkward, as the letter writers predicted.
The length of the grateful missive did not matter. That the communication appeared to be heartfelt did seem important to creating a warm response, Epley says.
While participants were surprised by the warm reactions, the researchers weren't. Epley says he's been doing similar experiments for years, including some year after year with his classes.
"You could almost just change the year on the data slide," he says. The findings have been similar regardless of class size, time of year or other factors like whether students were American or international.