Tools for Changing the World

Social psychology for social good

The magic word isn’t “please”

January 13th, 2011

Think about the last time someone thanked you for something you did. It felt nice, didn’t it? Still, you wouldn’t think it would make much difference to your behaviour later.

You might be surprised.

thank you note for every languageIt’s been established in many studies that feelings of gratitude make people more likely to help others. For example, one study found that study participants made to feel grateful (through unexpected assistance) toward a benefactor were more likely to help that benefactor with a tedious task. They were also more likely to help a stranger who had not previously helped them.

That makes sense, really. When we receive kindness, we have an impulse to pass it on. What I find more interesting is that it also works the other way around: being thanked makes people more likely to perform further kind acts.

Adam Grant and Francesca Gino recently published the results of their research on the effects of receiving thanks. In one experiment, study participants provided email feedback on a cover letter for a job application (supposedly written by a student named Eric). After sending in their feedback, they got a reply from ‘Eric’ asking if they would help him further by commenting on a second letter. Half the study participants received a reply that said,

“Dear [name], I just wanted to let you know that I received your feedback on my cover letter. I was wondering if you could help with a second cover letter…”

The other half of the participants received the identical reply, but with eight words added:

“Dear [name], I just wanted to let you know that I received your feedback on my cover letter. Thank you so much! I am really grateful. I was wondering if you could help with a second cover letter…” (emphasis mine)

The first version of the letter resulted in 32% of the participants agreeing to help. The addition of eight words to the second version increased the helping rate to 66% — more than twice as high.

Being thanked inspired kindness to other people as well. In a second experiment, Grant and Gino sent an acknowledging email from ‘Eric’, with or without the magic eight words above, then sent the study participants a request for help from another student, Steven. Those who had been thanked by Eric were more than twice as likely to choose to help Steven.

A third experiment showed that being thanked affected employee motivation. The researchers compared the number of calls made by fundraisers who had or hadn’t been visited by a director of annual giving to thank them for their work. Those employees who had been thanked made 50% more calls during the following week.

Grant and Gino examined the causes of these behavioural changes and found that receiving gratitude tends to increase a person’s sense of “social worth”—how much other people value them. Since favours aren’t always appreciated by their recipients, being thanked reassures the helper that the favour was worthwhile and reduces his or her uncertainty about doing another favour.

So, as always, thank you for reading. And please rest assured that I’m not going to contact you tomorrow with a request to read another post just because I thanked you. Monday, maybe, but not tomorrow.

3 comments on 'The magic word isn’t “please”'

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  1. Allan McKeown

    13 Jan 11 at 5:01 pm

    Maybe I’m old and cranky but the words “please” and “thank you” don’t seem to be used as often compared to when I was a polite young man!
    OK – I realize that there is a lot of subjectivity in that statement but seriously – two words that seem to going out of vogue are “I’m sorry” in relation to poor customer service.
    An apology can be a powerful motivator that generates forgiveness and a sense of gratitude in the receiver.
    Maybe you have already blogged about this!


    Carol Reply:

    Your precognitive abilities are in fine shape, Allan: I haven’t blogged about the positive effects of saying sorry yet, but it’s one of the posts in the queue for the future. And you’re absolutely right about the sense of forgiveness and gratitude.

    (And sorry I didn’t respond sooner to this!)


  2. Rob

    18 Jan 11 at 8:26 am

    About twenty years ago, my co-workers and I were sent to a customer service seminar where after a role playing exercise the instructor wanted us to use the words, “Please forgive me.” One hundred percent of my co-workers refused, though the same people said, “I’m sorry.” One caused us to feel vulnerable and open to berating. The other let us get on with the interview.


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