Can’t bring yourself to writing those thank-you notes? Study reveals why

AUSTIN — Jimmy Fallon writes them with his signature humor. Emily Post included them in her rules of etiquette. Miss Manners finds them really quite easy to create. But a new study finds that for the rest of us, sour feelings are keeping many people from getting around to this otherwise simple — and necessary — chore: writing thank-you notes to others.

Is a handwritten show of gratitude really that big of a deal? Apparently. Consider the results of a series of experiments by researchers with the University of Texas and University of Chicago.

“Researchers have known for 15 years that gratitude improves well-being. There’s lots of work done on this already,” says lead study author Amit Kumar, assistant professor of marketing at UT’s McCombs School of Business, in a media release. “What was interesting to me is that even though it’s something that’s well-known, people still don’t express gratitude all that often.”

Kumar and co-author Nicholas Epley wanted to know what stands in the way when people avoid this simple act of kindness. They conducted a series of experiments involving more than 500 participants tasked with emailing or writing a short, but specific thank-you note to someone who had helped them in some significant way.

In one experiment, letter-writers were asked to guess how their thank-you notes would impact recipients. First, would getting the letter surprise the recipients? Would the words themselves be a surprise, or would the recipients already know that they were appreciated? Would the bumbling attempts of the letter-writer make the recipient feel awkward? And ultimately, would the letter have a positive effect on the receiver’s mood? Each category was rated on a scale by the sender.

The authors gauged the letter-writers’ guesses against the recipients’ actual responses to the same questions using the same rating scale. Kumar says the results tell us that “people were not very good at predicting their recipient’s actual experience of reading the letter.” That’s because feelings of anxiety over what to write or how the note might be interpreted by the recipient leads many to avoid an outward display of gratitude.

In another more telltale experiment, researchers found what may be the real culprit in avoiding the thank-you note: feelings of incompetency. In this experiment, researchers asked letter-writers to rate their ability to say thanks with “just the right” words. They were also asked how well they thought the recipient would rate their articulation. Finally, would the recipient believe their letter to be warm and sincere?

“We found that expressers may worry inordinately about how they are expressing gratitude —  their ability to articulate the words ‘just right’ —  whereas recipients are focused more on warmth and positive intent,” the authors say.

Researchers say it is this belief that we are somehow going to get it “wrong” that keeps people from expressing gratitude on a regular basis.

In their final experiment, study authors asked participants to bring to mind a select handful of people to whom they felt grateful. Participants were questioned about how they thought recipients would feel about their expression of thanks. How would it affect their mood?

As expected, “people were most likely to write a letter to those they believed would respond most positively,” Kumar says. “So people’s willingness to express gratitude is guided by the expected value of a recipient’s response.”

Study authors say self-doubt is cheating many of us out of golden social opportunities. Fear of looking bad or being judged keeps us from expressing sincere gratitude. And yet participants who wrote thank-you notes reported feeling happier.

Researchers say it’s time to put down the self-doubt and raise the pen or keyboard to say “thanks.”

“What we saw is that it only takes a couple minutes to compose letters like these — thoughtful and sincere ones,” says Kumar. “It comes at little cost, but the benefits are larger than people expect.”

Findings were published in the September 5, 2018 edition of Psychological Science.