A new perspective on the social functions of emotions: Gratitude and the witnessing effect
Presenter: Christopher Oveis, Assistant Professor, UC San Diego
5101 Tolman Hall
We propose a novel theoretical and empirical approach to studying group-level social functions of emotions and use it to make new predictions about social consequences of gratitude. Here, we document the witnessing effect: In social groups, emotional expressions are often observed by 3rd party witnesses—family members, co-workers, friends, and neighbors. Emotional expressions coordinate group living by changing 3rd party witnesses' behavior toward 1st party emotion expressers. In six experiments (N = 1491), we test this proposition for gratitude, hypothesizing that 3rd party witnesses will be more helpful and affiliative toward a 1st party grateful person who expressed gratitude to a 2nd party benefactor, and why. In Experiments 1-3, participants who witnessed a "thank you" in one line of text, expressed to someone who previously helped the grateful person, were themselves more likely to help the grateful person. In Experiment 4, 3rd party witnesses of gratitude expressed to someone else via video recording were subsequently more affiliative toward the grateful person. Experiments 5 and 6 used within-subjects designs to test hypothesized mechanisms for these effects, with videos of real gratitude expressions; they provided evidence for a behavioral mechanism, other-praising behavior, and a social perceptual mechanism, perceived responsiveness of the grateful person, of gratitude's effects on 3rd party witnesses. Collectively, the evidence suggests gratitude may help build multiple relationships within a social network directly and simultaneously. By specifying proximal mechanisms for the reverberating consequences of one person's communicated emotion, the present theorizing stands to advance understanding of the group-level functions of emotions.