Human Arenas

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The Asymmetry in Gratitude

  • Valentina Luccarelli


The relational dimension of gratitude requires social psychology to (re)think theoretical and methodological constructs, in order to express the complexity of gratitude’s new features. I have tried to present an unexplored feature of gratitude: the asymmetry. In particular, I discussed whether or not gratitude can be characterized by an asymmetrical relation. Relationships are based on ‘power plays’, in which the expression of gratitude could be an ‘asymmetric sentiment’ that goes just in one direction. The presence of ‘gratitude of duty’, ‘gratitude of acquiescence’ and ‘gratitude of convenience’ was supposed to explain the bond between a low-power and high-power actor. In the second part, it is developed a model of gratitude as a triadic system of relationships. This theoretical reflection should be the starting point for a future research that will focus on developing new methods of data collection, able to capture the complexity of the ‘asymmetric sentiment’ of gratitude.


Gratitude Well-being Religion Asymmetric relationships Power 


It has been well documented that psychology has been more interested in studying human vice than virtue (e.g. Myers and Diener 1995). As Albert Einstein’s sentence recites: “The value of a man should be seen in what he gives and not in what is able to receive” (Hermanns 1983, p. 143). So, there are several reasons why the virtue of gratitude may be important to investigate, even if it appeared one of the ‘neglect’ virtues in psychology, before the development of positive psychology’s field of research. Many researchers indicate that gratitude is important to people (Gallup 1998), and ‘grateful’ appears to be a highly valued trait. Conversely, ‘ungrateful’ and ‘envy’ were rated (Galli 2003) as the most negative traits.

Also, gratitude may be a relevant resource for well-being. Although appreciated by philosophers, theologians and popular authors, gratitude has been largely ignored by psychology since then (Froh et al. 2008). Considering gratitude’s relationship to happiness, hope, pride, optimism, positive mood, self-actualization, smooth interpersonal relationships and a sense of community (Emmons and Shelton 2002), it is worth expanding the investigation about this positive emotion.

The Personal and Social Nature of Gratitude

Gratitude defies easy classification. It has been conceptualized as an emotion, an attitude, a moral virtue, a habit, a personality trait or a coping response (Emmons and McCullough 2003).

As a social virtue (Galli 2003), gratitude is necessarily considered a ‘relational’ concept. The first dimension of gratitude is the emotional one, because the expression of gratitude goes through affective and para-verbal language. Attitude is the second feature linked with gratitude, because we can analyse gratitude from a cognitive evaluation of interpersonal skills and enhance prosocial behaviours.

The etymology of the word gratitude derives from the Latin root ‘gratia’, meaning grace, graciousness or gratefulness. All its derivatives “have to do with kindness, generousness, gifts, the beauty of giving and receiving, or getting something for nothing” (Pruyser 1976, p. 69). Gift practices are, as Mauss and Cunnison (1954) suggested, rooted in custom and tradition.

A lot of authors defined gratitude as an affective trait—a “general tendency to recognize and respond with grateful emotion to the roles of other people’s benevolence in the positive experiences and outcomes that one obtains” (Emmons and McCullough 2004, p. 112).

Many studies and researchers have shown that gratitude has the power not only to link people, to create and preserve bonds but also to provoke dependency. Patricia White (1999) suggests that we can overcome the quid pro quo interpretation of gratitude by seeing it more as a response “by which the beneficiary honours and celebrates the benefactor’s goodwill”. In all of these definitions, the concept of mutual relationship is silently present.

Thinking in bi-lateral terms, gratitude appears to be an emotion shared at least from two people.

Characterizing Gratitude

Since Cicero wrote “Gratitude is not only the greatest of the virtues, but the parent of all of the others” (106–143 BC), gratitude may be considered the parent of all virtues (Wood et al. 2007) and the noblest of them.

From the perspective of both moral philosophy and theology, gratitude is seen as a human strength that enhances one’s personal and relational well-being and is beneficial for society as a whole (Simmel 1950). McCullough et al. (2001) theorized that gratitude is a moral affect. They hypothesized that by experiencing gratitude, a person is motivated to carry out prosocial behaviour, energized to sustain moral behaviours, and is prevented from committing destructive interpersonal behaviours. Specifically, McCullough et al. (2001) posited that gratitude serves as a ‘moral barometer’, providing individuals with an affective display that accompanies the perception that another person has treated them prosocially. They also maintain that gratitude serves as a ‘moral motive’, stimulating people to become prosocial after they have taken advantage from other people’s prosocial behaviour. Finally, gratitude serves as a ‘moral reinforcer’, encouraging prosocial behaviour by reinforcing people for their previous good opera. McCullough et al. (2002) provided evidence from a wide variety of studies in personality, social, developmental and evolutionary psychology to support this conceptualization.

As an emotion, gratitude derives from the perception that one has experienced a positive outcome that has intentionally provided by another person or ‘moral agent’, often but not necessarily a person (Emmons and McCullough 2003). Indeed, gratitude can be directed hider towards another person or to impersonal (nature) or non-human sources (God, animals, the cosmos; Solomon 1977; Teigen 1997). Gratitude may be defined as “a sense of thankfulness and joy in response to receiving a gift, whether the gift be a tangible benefit from a specific other or a moment of peaceful bliss evoked by natural beauty” (Peterson and Seligman 2004, p. 554, in Froh et al. 2008). The emotion of gratitude is an attribution-dependent state (Weiner 1985) that results from two stages of information processing (a) to recognize that one has obtained a positive outcome and (b) to recognize that there is an external source for this positive outcome. Lazarus and Lazarus (1996) argued that gratitude is one of the ‘empathic emotions’ because it allows someone to express empathy with others. The relational theme associated with gratitude is the recognition or the appreciation of an altruistic gift. According to Ortony et al. (1987), gratitude is a complex state that belongs to the category of affective-cognitive conditions, in which both affect and cognition are the predominant-meaning components of the term.

The Expression of Gratitude

Another personal and social relevant feature of gratitude is the variety forms of expression. So, how can be manifested gratitude?

In Table 1, Emmons and McCullough (2004, p. 211) summarize the various ways in which gratitude may be expressed in people’s experience and behaviour. The four layers or meanings of gratitude are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, they are different formulations of the same force of gratitude that allows people to restore the disequilibrium caused by having received a gift, whether from a supernatural power, nature or a fellow human being. In all of this case, the failure to reciprocate will act as a boomerang to the recipients.
Table 1

Expressions of gratitude in experience and behaviour (Emmons and McCullough 2004, p. 211)

Manifestations of gratitude

Layers of gratitude

Hau, the ‘spirit’ of the gift, nature expecting returns


Joy and the capacity to receive


Mutuality, reciprocity, power inequality, fear of sanctions


Webs of feelings connecting people


There are four layers at which gratitude can be expressed in given society (spiritual, moral, social and cultural). Each layer implies different appropriate forms of expressing gratitude.

It is curious that all of the manifestations of gratitude are based on the exchange between ‘me and you’. Following the ‘do ut des’ formula, the feeling of gratitude appears as a ‘moral duty’ towards the beneficiary and an ‘expected right’ for him to receive back.

In this regard, it is very important to consider the ‘Gift Economy Theory’ (Cheal 2015). Applyng Durkheim’s method—who believed that sociology sometimes have to ignore things that are ‘secondary’ in order to concentrate on the ‘essential’ features—Mauss and Cunnison (1954) theorized that the essential features of gift transactions are the obligation to give, the obligation to receive and the obligation to make a return for gifts received.

The major difficulty with the ‘elementalist’ approach to the study of social relations is that it ignores the situated character of social practices (Habermas 1970).

Therefore, what are the personal benefits and costs of following or breaking the ‘social rule’ such as the obligation to give or receive a gift?

Gratitude, Happiness and Well-Being

There are reasons to believe that experiences of gratitude might be associated with happiness and well-being. Researchers, writers and practitioners have all considered that gratitude possesses happiness properties. Myers (1992) described happiness, or subjective happiness, as “a lasting sense that life is fulfilling, meaningful, and pleasant”. Research on gratitude and well-being must address the issue of whether gratitude—in the context of savouring positive life circumstances, coping with negative life circumstances or trying to counteract negative emotions—is a cause of well-being or a moderately positive and active emotion that people with high well-being frequently experience. One supposedly direct way to determine whether gratitude exerts a causal effect on happiness and well-being would be in the context of experimental studies, in which gratitude was manipulated and its effects on measures of well-being were observed (Quoidbach et al. 2009).

Several scholars have noted that gratitude typically has a positive emotional valence (Lazarus and Lazarus 1996; Mayer et al. 1991; Weiner 1985). Initial research suggests that gratitude is a moderately pleasant and activating emotion, showing that gratitude is a pleasant state and is linked with positive emotions, including contentment (Walker and Pitts 1998), happiness, pride and hope (Overwalle et al. 1995).

Positive emotions such as gratitude contribute to more favourable cognitive judgments of life satisfaction and overall well-being (Denier and Larsen 1993; Buss 2000; Denier and Suh 2000; Suh et al. 1998), and experiencing or expressing those emotions has been shown to further improve well-being and happiness (Fredrickson and Joiner 2002). In fact, as we know, happiness includes emotional states of joy, contentment, positive well-being and a perception that one’s life is advantageous (Lyubomirsky 2001). Gratitude is typically comprised of appreciation, thankfulness and a sense of wonder (Emmons and Shelton 2002). To understand the link between gratitude and happiness, empirical studies show the effects of a ‘grateful outlook’ on psychological and physical well-being (Emmons and McCullough 2003), as it indicates that people can extract from life the most satisfactory and enjoying events, facilitating positive experiences (Sheldon and Lyubomirsky 2006).

Wood et al. (2010) further conceptualized gratitude as a life orientation towards noticing and appreciating the positive in the world. Studies on the scaling of emotional terms claim that gratitude tends to load on pleasantness and activation factors (Mayer and Salovey 1993; Reisenzein 1994). In an empirically derived taxonomy of emotional terms, gratitude was clustered in a category of positive, interpersonal feelings that included admiration, respect, trust and regard (Storm and Storm 1987; Parrott 2001). In similarity judgments of emotions, thankfulness is rated as highly similar to joy and contentment and as highly dissimilar to contempt, hate and jealousy (Schimmack and Reisenzein 1997).

Lastly, McCullough et al. (2002) found that dispositional gratitude was related to, but distinct from, trait measures of positive affect, vitality, optimism, envy, depression and anxiety. Although gratitude overlaps with other positive feelings, it also possesses a unique pattern of appraisals that distinguishes it from happiness (Weiner 1985).

Cognition and emotion researchers have made substantial advances in modelling the situational elements and cognitive attributions which cause such emotions as anger, fear or disgust (Power and Dalgleish 1999), but have made little progress in understanding gratitude.

Expressive writing was confirmed as a method for improving multiple aspects of well-being (Pennebaker 1997, 2004). Similar to previously studies (Watkins et al. 2003; Sin and Lyubomirsky 2009), Toepfer and Walker (2009) showed that act of writing three letters of gratitude had a positively impact to young adult college students in two sub-domains of well-being: happiness and gratitude. If well-being and gratitude are related in social life, what kind of psychological well-being can human beings experience expressing gratitude to something different from fellow humans, as in the case of transcendent entities?

Gratitude and Religiousness

Although gratitude is an important component of religion, few psychological studies focus on the expression of gratitude to deity in the different religious credos.

According to a secular perspective, “we are born to believe” (Newberg and Waldman 2007), not with a specific belief in a deity, or any religious belief. Instead, we learn to believe (or disbelieve) in God: “as Richard Dawkins aptly puts it: Children are not Jewish or Christian or Muslim. Rather, they are taught to believe one set of ideas, and they are taught to disbelieve in others” (Newberg and Waldman 2007, p. XVIII).

According to this conception, every day we are grateful to everything or everyone in which we believe (e.g. God, spiritual, nature, sun, constellation and parents), deciding to create a bond between us and others based on a ‘power play’.

The literature suggests that religion may enhance various aspects of well-being in at least four ways: (a) through social integration and support, (b) through the establishment of personal relationships with a divine other, (c) through the provision of system of meaning and existential coherence and (d) through the promotion of more specific patterns of religious organization and personal lifestyle.

Specifically, Ellison (1991) examined the multifaceted relationships between religious involvement and subjective well-being, reporting that the positive influence of religious certainty on well-being is direct and substantial. A person with strong religious faith reports higher level of life satisfaction and personal happiness and, on contrary, reduced negative psychosocial consequences of traumatic life events. The ability to notice and appreciate the elements of one’s life has been viewed as a crucial determinant of well-being (Janoff-Bulman and Berger 2000).

Everyone have a different personal commitment to invest psychic energy in developing a personal schema, outlook or worldview that allows us to consider life as a ‘gift’ (Emmons and McCullough 2003). Indeed, numerous groups have absorbed this insight. For example, many religiously oriented events such as reflection days have the idea of a gift (e.g. those influenced by Jesuit spirituality), or many self-help groups and organizations (e.g. Alcoholics Anonymous) exist. The regular practice of grateful thinking should lead to enhanced psychological and social functioning, because it is like a recurring theme. A grateful response to life circumstances may be an adaptive psychological strategy and an important process by which people positively interpret everyday experiences (Cameron and Dutton 2003). Religion acts as both common and special system of meaning (Silberman 2005; Park 2005a, b, 2010), and each religious form of life can be seen as a ‘system of communication’ (Manuti et al. 2016). Communicating gratitude to God, a believer could reduce the sentiment of loneliness and experiment psychological well-being. Sharing gratitude could be considered as a ‘social indicator’ of well-being (Andrews and Withey 2012).

In particular, Tsang et al. (2012) examined the relationship between religion and two forms of gratitude: (a) grateful reactions to a specific favour and (b) self-reported grateful personality. Results demonstrated that intrinsic religiousness was positively associated with grateful disposition but not with self-report or behavioural gratitude for the specific favour. In this world of view, we can consider gratitude as an internal disposition of human being. It is no accident that gratitude and happiness operate in a cycle of virtue similar to the ‘positive loop’ (Watkins et al. 2003), as in the case of the reduced effects of stress on health for older people who feel more grateful to God (Krause 2006). As gratitude is directly related to well-being (Wood et al. 2010), it is positively correlated with religious commitment. This relationship was fully mediated by gratitude towards God (Rosmarin et al. 2011). Blessing, that someone recites before have a meal, could represent a specifically form of religious commitment towards God that believers use to express gratitude to God. Instead, the blessing someone recites over misfortune is not an expression of gratitude towards God, but it represents an acceptance of pains and divine judgment (Schimmel 2004). According to this view, gratitude to God appears as a personal construction of psychological well-being. To be grateful to someone or something is a form of religiosity, like a ‘personal belief’ in something. Maybe, it is more accurate to say that religiosity (not religion) is positively correlated with wellness (Oleckno and Blacconiere 1991).

This meaning of gratitude is consistent with believers’ worldview, but what happens in the perspective of atheists? Are there differences about the concept of gratitude? Atheists cannot do any kind of blessing or prayers because they do not believe in deity. Non-believers cannot feel any kind of obligation towards God or Transcendence, and they do not express gratitude to deity for the gift of life (Sinnott-Armstrong 2009). An atheist might say, for instance, ‘I am grateful for my family’ or ‘I am grateful for a beautiful sunset’ without feeling grateful to anyone for these things. Being grateful for, in this sense, is the proper response to good things, things that have some value for the beneficiary.

The most steadfast believers feel a strong connection with deity and think to receive everyday one or more gifts from ‘a God’ and suppose they must be grateful to Him. Typical titles of ‘God as benefactor’ are frequently read in light of media of exchange, especially power, knowledge and material benefaction. Several leading questions emerge: Why does God indeed give benefaction? What kind of reciprocity is in view? (Neyrey 2005).

Why is it important for us to study gratitude to deity? In our perspective, the link between humans and God is the first and the most representative asymmetric relationship.

The relational dimension of gratitude, emerging from the above discussion, requires social psychology to (re)think theoretical and methodological constructs, in order to express the complexity of gratitude’s new features.

Gratitude in ‘Asymmetric Power Relationships’

This article questions the symmetric and reciprocal feature of gratitude as presented in literature. In particular, we ask whether or not gratitude can be characterized by an asymmetrical relation or not. The literature review shows that gratitude is granted of a shared sentiment between two or more people that symmetrically feel and express it. For this reason, the focus of this theoretical reflection is to understand how the emotion of gratitude emerges in an asymmetric power relationship. How can we relate gratitude, in all its manifestations, to different kinds of relationships based on a power play? First, it is necessary to define ‘social power’ as a symmetric control over valued resources in social relations (Blau 1964; Dépret and Fiske 1983; Pfeffer and Salancik 2003). We can use the world asymmetric to define power as existing in social relations to capture the relative state of dependence between two or more parties (individual or groups) (Emerson 1962). The high-power part, in contrast, is less dependent on the low-power part. However, to the extent that the low-power part can access the resources in an alternative relationship, the high-power part has less power (Blau 1964). In the perspective of economic rationality (Cheal 2015) gift giving if often described by sociological theorists as a process of exchange through which individuals rationally purse their self-interests. This point of view, known as ‘Social Exchange Theory’ (Blau 1964; Emerson 1976; Cook and Emerson 1978; Cook et al. 2013), is modelled upon the political economy of market transaction. But this idea works only assuming that, for the low part, the meaning of the resources is the same, no matter who is providing them. If we take into account the meaning making process, the power relationship can be established because the low-power person values the resources only if they come from the high-power part. For instance, in romantic relationships, I do not beg kindness from equally every person, but I want only the attention of my partner.

We assume asymmetry as a feature of human relationships that emerges from the context, the actual resource distribution and the meaning that the actors attribute to the (inter)dependence.

If we relate the idea of inherent asymmetry to sentiment of gratitude—considering the explored difference between a ‘gratitude of exchange’ and a ‘gratitude of caring’ (Buck 2004)—we can argue that the gratitude of exchange is expressed from a benefactor (who is in a ‘high-power’ position) who gives something to a beneficiary (who is in a low-power position), and this one decides to reciprocate giving him/her another gift. The gratitude of caring refers to an interpersonal private relationship (e.g. parents and sons, lovers, close friends), in which one person could love more the partner, and the beneficiary (who receives love) can decide to reciprocate the sentiment in the same way or not. Also in this case, an asymmetric relationship may be observed, in which the benefactor who expresses love is in high-power position and the beneficiary is in low-power position. This is a kind of ‘top-down’ relationship, and in both situations, one of the actors feels and expresses gratitude for something, thinking that he/she will receive back gratitude later. In my perspective, this could be a foundational principle of gratitude that takes for granted the meaning of relationships. By simply saying ‘thank you’, the beneficiary sustains the benefactor’s benevolence and increases the possibility of receiving support from the benefactor in the future (Chang et al. 2012). The ‘performative words’ (Austin 2013) as “I am grateful to you for…” are pronounced in order to create an expectative of gratitude in the interlocutor.

The Meaning of Gratitude in Asymmetric Relationships

Considering the symbolic meaning to gratitude (and its expressions), as ‘asymmetric sentiment’, we could explore the quality of the ‘asymmetric power relationships’ between people. Some authors provide theoretical and empirical support for the argument that the symbolic meanings of relationships should be considered measures of relationship quality, assessing the impact of relationship loss on individual well-being (Umberson and Torling 1997).

Focusing on this conception, we could say that the meaning attributed to gratitude could produce individual well-being, not only the expression of gratefulness. As we know since James (1884), thoughts influence emotions and behaviours. The gratitude, as asymmetric sentiment, could be generated by the position (or the rank) which someone has in the relationship.

Considering the continuum between ‘low and high power’, it might suppose three different kinds of gratitude which may be expressed in an ‘asymmetric power relationships’: (a) ‘gratitude of duty’, in which a person in ‘high-power’ gives something special to someone and the low-power beneficiary have to reciprocate expressing gratitude (e.g. employee towards boss); (b) ‘gratitude of acquiescence’ in which two or more people together in low-power position express gratitude to someone in high-power position to avoid a conflict (e.g. two or more employees towards boss); and (c) ‘gratitude of convenience’, in which a person in high-power position shows gratitude to someone in low-power position because he/she needs him/her for doing something (e.g. boss towards employee/s).

We can provide many examples in which these three kinds of gratitude are expressed. For instance, between humans and God, a particular asymmetric power relationship exists. Expressing gratitude to God for life, health, food and natural resources, a believer has actually expressed a bless for himself/herself, thinking that all benevolence towards God could be ‘repaid’ with a wonderful life. In fact, we know that in ancient Greek literature, humans and heroes were frightened of divinity’s anger. Mythological exempla (Phaeton, Niobe, Odysseus) indicate the persecution of a human by a God because of real or imagined injuries to God (Claassen 1987). Gods promised protection and offered boon through signs and rituals.

The link between the difficulty to get God’s forgiveness and negative emotions has been detected and explained by two psychological factors: angry disposition and feelings of alienation from God (Exline et al. 1999). These studies could explain the ‘pressing need’ of believers to be grateful to God for their own sake. Furthermore, humans needed to create mythological history to explain why it was very important to be grateful to Divinities. We sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood Him. Through prayers and meditation (or rituals), human beings can move the power of acting from God to mortals, avoiding curses and soliciting boons. In this way, humans can ‘overpower’ the relation with God, equilibrating the ‘power play’ between them.

From the elementalist point of view, the cultural significance of gift transactions in social relationships hides “first and foremost a means of controlling others” (Mauss and Cunnison 1954, p. 73).

Considering this perspective, it is possible to assume that expression of gratitude could be an act which allows anyone to re-establish a high-power position above others.

One can consider, for instance, some special relationships, in which the expression of gratitude should be a mutual benefit. In a romantic relationship, the gratitude could play a major role in the re-establishment of the balance power. On the other hand, disregarding expectations about gratitude relationships can be interpreted as a break of social rules and be labelled as ‘ingratitude’. However, is ingratitude the only opposite of gratitude?

The ‘Other Side’ of Gratitude

If we adopt the idea of complementarity in the epistemology of social sciences (Tateo and Marsico 2014)—despite that literature considers the ingratitude as the ‘other side’ of gratitude (Galli 2003)—in strictly logical terms, the opposite concept of gratitude is ‘non-gratitude’ or ‘a-gratitude’.

Ancient Greeks talked about both the duty of gratitude and the sin of ingratitude (Hewitt 1917). Often, ingratitude is associated to envy that causes hostility towards people. In an asymmetrical relationship, feeling of envy between people is very common. In fact, we can define envy as a feeling provoked by the painful perception of discrepancies between oneself and another (Berke 1986). But, the existence of a feeling of envy between two or more people does not exclude the possibility to feel also ‘ingratitude’ or a-gratitude. On the side of expression, one can find in everyday relationships very different combination of feelings and expression of feelings (e.g. expressing gratitude, but feeling envy).

Nisters (2012) discusses about Aristoteles’s opposites of virtue and emotion. “An emotion has one and only one opposite. A virtue has two opposites. Gratitude has one and only one opposite, namely, ingratitude. Therefore, gratitude is an emotion […]”. According to this argumentation, a virtue has at least two complementary opposites: ingratitude and a-gratitude.

What Does It Mean to Be Ungrateful or ‘a-Grateful’ Person?

For Kant, acquiring the virtue of gratitude requires a natural tendency towards ingratitude, rooted in a perceived tension between being a beneficiary and maintaining one’s proper self-esteem (Timmons 2017). In this perspective, the attention is focused on the beneficiary’s feeling of pride that is considered the trigger to be ungrateful towards benefactor, because it is assumed that beneficiary is in a low-power condition. While in the above section, we have shown examples of asymmetric relationships producing expression of gratitude, here we claim that expression of gratitude can be interpreted as power asymmetry. Accordingly, a beneficiary could feel a-gratitude towards the benefactor, because he cannot feel emotion of gratitude. We can think a-gratitude as an absence of emotion, not a negative emotion, as well as consider ingratitude. McCullough et al. (2002) theorized that the expression of gratitude, as a ‘moral reinforcer’ serves to increase the chances that a benefactor will respond with benevolence again in the future, just as the expression of ingratitude can instill anger in benefactors and discourage future prosocial behaviour. Consequently, the emotion of anger will instill the feeling of a-gratitude in beneficiary towards benefactor.

Conclusion: Gratitude as a System of Relationships

Summarizing all perspectives about the concept of gratitude emerged from this review, we read that some researchers talk about gratitude as an affective trait or a predisposition to experience it (Watkins et al. 2003), while some others call it ‘grateful disposition’ (McCullough et al. 2002) associated with some traits of personality. Grateful disposition is defined as one’s general tendency to acknowledge and express thankful emotion to others for own positive gain or experiences (McCullough et al. 2002). Besides, people with high grateful disposition or traits are more likely to experience gratitude in their daily interaction (Chang et al. 2012).

The conceptualizations of gratitude (i.e. affective trait, attitude and moral affect) are also closely related to emotion. This is because the experiences of gratitude could be explained as an emotion, through an ‘emotion word’ (Parrott 2001). Particularly, the researchers (e.g. Chen 2013; Froh et al. 2008, 2009; Toepfer et al. 2012), who conceptualized gratitude as an emotion, define gratitude an attribution-dependent state that recognizes (a) one has gained a benefit and (b) there is an external source for this benefit. A lot of theories of gratitude have emphasized the importance of attributing the source of benefits to others (e.g. Weiner 1985; Emmons and McCullough 2004). According to Algoe et al.’s theory (2013), the emotion of gratitude uniquely builds a high-quality relationship between a grateful person and the target of her gratitude, that is, the person who performed a kind act.

I present some theoretical reflections, beyond the theorized reciprocal and shared nature of gratitude: How is gratitude expressed instead in an asymmetric relationship?

As I proposed, asymmetric relationships are based on ‘power plays’ that sometimes do not allow a way out. In this case, people could express gratitude in a different form, not only as a positive emotion but also as an asymmetric sentiment (see the examples above of gratitude of duty, acquiescence and convenience). These kinds of situation could represent a sort of ‘double bind’ (Watzlawick 1963), where the benefactor is also the person who compels us to express gratitude because it is ‘the right thing’ to do, not because we actually feel a deep sentiment of gratitude towards him. Let us imagine a scenario that could happen on a work place. An employer needs his two employees to use residual holidays, so he does not have to pay for it. Then, he asks the two employees in the following form: to choose one day of vacancy in each week for three consecutive months. Some conditions must be respected: They can choose all days excluding the ones quite close the weekend (Monday and Friday) and the central one of the week (Wednesday). The two remaining days are Tuesday and Thursday, and the two employees cannot choose the same day, because they have to alternate their leave. What makes this scenario a situation of ‘double bind gratitude’ is the specific context, the asymmetric power relationships and the linguistic form in which the offer is uttered. We can observe the expression of three kinds of gratitude:
  1. (a)

    Gratitude of duty’: This kind is experienced by the individual employee towards the employer, because the right to holidays is formally respected.

  2. (b)

    Gratitude of acquiescence’: This kind is experienced by the two employees, as expression expected in relation to their job role, namely in order to avoid a conflict whit the employer.

  3. (c)

    Gratitude of convenience’: This kind is experienced by the employer towards employees, because they have chosen the days that he has indicated, also allowing him to formally respect workers’ right.


From the above scenario emerges how the expression of gratitude paradoxically can be the outcome of a double bind situation, which is not contemplated in the existing literature.

In this new perspective, theorized and developed in this paper, we can consider gratitude as an asymmetric sentiment that emerges in power relationships. Going back, for instance, to gratitude in religious context, we can observe that frequently, the believer is put in this kind of double bind gratitude situations. Often, organized religions set precepts that are not actually achievable by the ordinary person. However, the believer is blamed if he does not feel gratitude towards deity, despite the impossibility to fulfil those religious requirements.

In the common understanding, gratitude is viewed as a dyadic relationship (two persons, who are grateful each other, and the object is the mediator between them), but this binary model cannot explain the dynamic meaning making of gratitude (Tateo 2016). From the examples above, we can argue that the relationship of gratitude is made of three elements (Fig. 1).
Fig. 1

Triadic relationship of gratitude

We can consider a triadic relationship, in which there is a person (P) who is grateful to someone (X) in function of an object (O). Introducing a triadic model, we can explain both the asymmetry and the dynamicity of gratitude. The model can be interpreted starting from each one of the elements. Depending on the value attributed to object, the kind of gratitude that P can express gratitude to X can have different meaning. In return, X can expect a particular expression of gratitude by P. The relationship between P and X could be asymmetric (P as high-power part and X as low-power part or vice versa), because the object can have an ambivalent value. For instance, in a familiar relationship, a son could be grateful to his father because he provides him with food. But, he can also hate him for the same reason. In this case, the object (food) can assume either positive or negative value. Looking the model from the perspective of X, the meaning of gratitude and the value of the object can change. For instance, if a person (P) believes that the benefactor (X) is a deity or destiny or another person, the meaning of the object (O) will be different (e.g. can become a miracle, a gift, a right, etc.…).

So, ‘relationships based on gratefulness’ must be understood as a whole system (between P and X, or P and O or X and O). This is a mediation triangle, in which the gratitude is distributed among elements; it means that my relationship with the object of gratitude (O) can be mediated by the person (X) who allows this expression of gratefulness. In the scenario of workers, if the employee (P) values the holidays (O) as a right, he will not grateful to his boss (X), but if he values the object (holidays) as a gift from the employer—and in some work contexts, even the job can be considered ‘a gift from the employer’—he could be grateful to X and accept the negotiation for choosing his holidays. We can map the same scenario from the perspective of employer on our triadic model. So, we can conclude that it is more productive to consider the meaning making process in the relationship of gratitude, as in the triadic model, rather than simply creating catalogues of different kinds of gratitude.

Future research directions should focus on developing new methods of data collection, able to capture the complexity of the asymmetric gratitude, using for instance the thinking aloud method based on specific scenarios.


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© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of Bari Aldo MoroBariItaly

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