Thanksgiving 2011: Can gratitude trump self-interest? LEAVES TO HELP NEIGHBORS THIS WEEK? That’s a major volunteer activity among U.S. sailors and neighbors of the Norfolk Naval Station each autumn. This photo shows sailors and friends raking leaves during this semi-annual Clean the Station Day, established to beautify the base for the whole community. A spring Clean the Station Day coincides with Earth Day and involves freshening and pruning the landscape for the summer. U.S. Naval photo by David Danals, now in public domain.Thanksgiving: It’s a day when American families pause and give thanks for what they appreciate. This is an official occasion for the expression of gratitude, but gratitude is a basic human emotion and virtue. “Gratitude is not only the greatest of the virtues,” said Cicero, “but the parent of all others.”

Thanksgiving is also an occasion for volunteering. Many Americans volunteer to help the hungry and homeless—or perform other kinds of service for the community. But the connection between gratitude and helping runs much deeper than what happens this week. Gratitude is one of the main reasons people help one another on a regular basis.

An experiment in generosity: I asked my students to participate in an activity that would allow them to ask for whatever they needed in their lives—and to respond to requests their classmates made. To make it interesting, I specified a quota—the number of requests and responses to requests they had to make. There was no bonus credit for going over the quota.

What do you suppose happened in the experiment? Here are two theories:
I’ve asked this question in several seminars and most people agree: They predict the students would stop after meeting the quota. After all, they’re busy people and there’s no credit for going over the quota. It’s not in their self interest to continue. Or, I’ve also heard a second theory, a more sophisticated version of self-interest: The students would continue to help but they would only do it strategically. They would help more than required—but only to earn a false reputation for generosity that would be rewarded in the future. If they perform this extra helping, in other words, it’s really just self interest because they assume their new generous reputation will earn them benefits later.

What actually happened: I found that almost all of the students do exceed the quota—some by a wide margin. Why? There are several reasons, and I’ve deployed an armory of statistical methods to figure it out, but gratitude is the biggest reason. Some people do help in order to earn a generous reputation. But gratitude is more powerful. The more help one receives, the more likely one is to help others. In other words, people pay it forward, creating a network of gratitude and helpfulness.

This week, I’m asking OurValues readers to …

Share a story of gratitude and generosity.

When have you found yourself experiencing these values?

Or, when have you seen this flowing from others?


AND, Connect with other OurValues readers via Facebook!

CLICK ON the “Now You Can Find Us on Facebook” link in the right-hand column.

Originally published at, an online experiment in civil dialogue on American values.

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