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Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) Professor Jennifer Lerner has dedicated much of her career to developing a theoretical framework that successfully predicts how specific emotions influence specific judgments and choices. To provide hard tests for the theory, she often studies financial decisions in which participants are highly motivated to earn as much money as they can. In particular, she has studied how decision makers trade off options for getting less money now versus significantly more money in the future, if they can be patient.
She and her colleagues consistently find that how you feel affects the economic choices you make, even if the feeling arose from a situation incidental to the judgment or choice at hand. Previous research has shown that certain emotions like sadness cause participants to choose smaller, near-term gains over significantly larger, distant-term ones. Sadness makes them excessively impatient.
A new study co-authored by David DeSteno of Northeastern University, Ye Li of University of California-Riverside, Leah Dickens of Northeastern University, and Lerner; finds that when feeling gratitude, people become patient – valuing larger, distant-term over smaller, near-term financial gains.
“Gratitude: A Tool for Reducing Economic Impatience” is published in the latest edition of the journal Psychological Science. The study builds upon Lerner's previous research, seeking to gain a greater understanding of the connections between emotions and financial decision-making.
Although it has long been thought that reducing emotion was the key to rational decision making, the authors developed the radical hypothesis that increasing the emotion of gratitude would reduce the bias toward excessively discounting future rewards. Importantly, they predicted that particular properties of gratitude would drive the effect and that just being in a positive state (e.g., being happy) would be insufficient to reduce the bias.
To test their theory, the researchers randomly assigned research participants to one of three emotion-induction conditions – neutral, happy, or grateful. Each participant was later provided the opportunity to select either a smaller amount of money in the short-term or a larger amount of money later.
By monitoring the amount of money each participant selected, the researchers were able to quantify their findings in dollar figures. "In monetary terms, the mean grateful participant required $63 immediately to forgo receiving $85 in three months, whereas the mean neutral or happy participant required only $55 immediately," the authors state.
"The results reveal that gratitude reduces excessive economic impatience," the authors conclude. "Comparing gratitude’s effects to those of happiness, the results also confirm the importance of narrowly parsing the influence of positive emotional states within the context of economic choice. Perhaps most importantly, they substantially challenge the view that individuals must tamp down affective responses through effortful self-regulation to make more patient and adaptive economic decisions."
The authors argue that these findings have profound consequences in social science.
"Research has already shown that gratitude enhances behaviors, such as cooperation, that favor long-term gain even at an immediate cost," they write. "The identification of a direct effect of gratitude on financial impatience provides insight not only into a possible mechanism underlying such behavioral effects, but also opens new paths with which affect-based interventions might profitably be used."
David DeSteno is a professor in the psychology department at Northeastern University. Ye Li is an assistant professor of management and marketing at the University of California, Riverside. Leah Dickens is a graduate student in the psychology department at Northeastern University. Jennifer Lerner is professor of public policy and management at Harvard Kennedy School and served as founding director of the Harvard Decision Science Laboratory.