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This story is Part II of a series on gratitude science. Part I of this story focused on psychologist Mike McCullough’s aspiration for global gratitude research. Part II reveals its synergy with the work of fellow psychologist, Amrisha Vaish.

Dr. Amrisha Vaish, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, says that knowledge gaps in gratitude research are symptomatic of the larger problem of psychological research’s WEIRD-centric nature. “Outside of a few notable exceptions, our field (my own research included) has only recently begun to take seriously the idea that people’s social, cultural, and economic contexts may account for a great deal of variation in their psychology and behavior,” she says. In fact, Vaish believes gratitude has actually been studied cross-culturally more than many other psychological phenomena. But its scope is still far from comprehensive.

Like Mike McCullough, a psychologist at the University of California, San Diego, Vaish is interested in globalizing gratitude research. She directs the Early Social Development Lab at UVA, where her research focuses on the socio-moral emotions, cognitions, and behaviors that enable children to successfully participate in cooperative interactions and relationships from a young age. Within the emotions, I consider gratitude to be really fundamental,” Vaish says. “Gratitude is what we experience when someone has been generous towards us in a meaningful way, and feeling grateful motivates us to reciprocate towards that individual, thereby helping to maintain an ongoing, mutually beneficial cooperative interaction.” 

Given the central role gratitude plays in human cooperation, examining the emergence of gratitude in children was a natural trajectory for her research. Vaish is currently developing a cross-cultural study that will compare gratitude among children in the United States and India. The Indian and American social contexts overlap in important ways, such as the high levels of market integration and education in both countries. But they also vary significantly, including the degree to which they value individuality, autonomy, and self-reliance, and the degree to which they emphasize social relationships, respect for social hierarchy, and interpersonal responsibilities. It’s these differences that Vaish is particularly curious about, knowing that they can highlight the unique ways gratitude is experienced, socialized, and expressed across the two cultures.

Vaish’s research is a response to two missing pieces in psychology’s understanding of childhood gratitude. The first is the function gratitude serves among children across the world. While there is a sizable amount of literature examining how children in various cultures conceptualize and express gratitude, she says, “there is far less work on the contexts in which children experience gratitude and what behaviors it motivates in them, particularly among young children. For instance, does receiving a benefit motivate young children across cultures to reciprocate towards their benefactor?” The second missing piece is the socialization of gratitude across cultures. How do parents and other caregivers socialize gratitude in children? And how might adults’ experiences, expressions, and responses to gratitude shape how they pass them on? 

For this project, Vaish plans to study middle-class families in urban areas of the US and India. She emphasizes that the research’s conclusions will be limited to these particular demographics, and can’t be generalized to other socioeconomic classes or more rural parts of the two countries—nor to countries that share similar characteristics to the US and India. Her work adds one stone to the foundation of cross-cultural gratitude research. For a more complete picture, other researchers will need to add their own.

Mapping gratitude

McCullough and his team hope to bring us another step closer to understanding the universals and particularities of gratitude. The team includes the researchers Sara Algoe of UNC-Chapel Hill, Nicholas Coles of Stanford, Hilary Lenfesty of Arizona State, and Shigehiro Oishi of University of Virginia. Together, they will collect data from 50 non-WEIRD countries with at least 200 participants per country. The goal is to study countries that vary in all five of the WEIRD criteria (westernness, education, industrialization, wealth, and democratization) while also accounting for potential moderators like religiosity, degree of individualism, and relational mobility. The resulting research will equip the team to create a Gratitude Dataverse, bringing together as many gratitude data sets as possible with a special focus on less-WEIRD countries.

This study is first of its kind. “We’ve never done any studies that are comparing apples with apples systematically looking across cultures,” says McCullough.

“We're asking fairly sophisticated questions, or at least we're hoping to bring fairly sophisticated methods to asking that super-basic question: Does gratitude make people happy?”

 The project also aims to create cross-culturally valid measures of studying gratitude both as a state—that is, a temporary condition—and a trait, or long-term characteristic. That means that the team will have to first determine whether there is, in fact, an emotional state called gratitude that turns on and off. “In the same way that there’s a system in the human mind that makes us avoid snakes or makes us look for something to eat when we haven’t had anything, [we’re] looking to see if there’s something that turns on and off in everybody when someone else does something nice for them that they weren’t expecting.” Once psychologists can determine that there is indeed an emotional state called gratitude, they can examine gratitude as a long-term characteristic. They can study whether certain people are more sensitive to the conditions that elicit gratitude, making them more grateful than others.

When asked if he has any hunches about what the data will reveal, McCullough hedges. Does he suspect gratitude is universally good for well-being? Yes, he says, he anticipates that it is. “Functionally, gratitude is a response to recognizing there are people in the world who are willing to do things for you that are way nicer than you would have expected from them. Knowing they’re decent, benevolent people in the world ought to have the effect of making you feel safer in the world.” But he also readily acknowledges that in certain academic corners, he’s heard otherwise. He’s heard “whispers” based on field work that indicate certain groups and cultures simply don’t experience gratitude. In these communities, there’s no language for it. There’s no recognition that someone has done something extraordinary for another person. Hearing this kind of anecdotal evidence, he says, “really induces humility with me, and really makes me want to understand whether that’s true or not. If it’s true, it has profound implications for how we understand gratitude as an emotion. And I think that’s an important frontier for understanding what the human mind really is.”

That’s the whole point of this project: a willingness to be proven wrong, a willingness to tear apart what seem like obvious correlations in the name of studying a representative swath of humanity. He hopes that the team’s research will push widely-held ideas about gratitude past a common-sense understanding and put them to the test. By pulling back the curtain on how gratitude is experienced across the world, they can test whether gratitude’s benefits apply to non-Western societies. In the end, the project seeks to answer three simple questions: Is gratitude understood everywhere? Is it practiced everywhere? Is it valued everywhere? 

Ultimately, the research will equip the team to put together a global geography of gratitude. McCullough pictures a world map full of different color pins, each indicating a particular finding.

A red pin indicates countries where gratitude makes people happy, while a blue pin indicates countries where gratitude has no effect at all. Purple highlights places where favors from strangers cause feelings of indebtedness. Green indicates places where there’s no language for gratitude, no good translation for the English word at all. “We want to not just have a map, but we want to have a causal map, where we can also understand the political, social, religious, economic features of individual societies that cause these things to be true in some places, but not in others,” says McCullough. This map of data is the starting point for making gratitude science less WEIRD, a tool that will equip psychologists decades down the road to draw meaningful conclusions about the human experience of gratitude.

Annelise Jolley is a journalist and essayist who writes about place, food, ecology, and faith for outlets such as National Geographic, The Atavist, The Rumpus, and The Millions. Find her at annelisejolley.com.