The decay of gratitude

[Francis] Flynn asserts that immediately after one person performs a favor for another, the recipient of the favor places more value on the favor than does the favor-doer.  However, as time passes, the value of the favor decreases in the recipient’s eyes, whereas for the favor-doer, it actually increases.  Although there are several potential reasons for this discrepancy, one possibility is that, as time goes by, the memory of the favor-doing event gets distorted, and since people have the desire to see themselves in the best possible light, receivers may think they didn’t need all that much help at the time, while givers may think they really went out of their way for the receiver.

That is from Robert B. Cialdini’s fascinating Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to be Persuasive.  Cialdini’s earlier Influence remains one of my favorite social science books.  Here is a link to Flynn’s paper and related work.


Gratitude has to decay, especially if it's a favor that can't be reciprocated in kind or in magnitude. Otherwise it would hang around the neck of the favor recipient like an albatross, a burden, an itch that can't be scratched, perhaps even a source of resentment.

Very often a favor is merely a catalyst. If I lend you a bit of money so you don't need to drop out of school, and then you go on to graduate and have a successful career, can I really take credit for all of that, or was it mostly your own hard work?

Gratitude should be very much like mourning: a short period of strong feelings that fade when you feel ready to move on, although you might pause every once in a while and remember.

Not sure which version of Cialdini's book I have (it would be either British or Dutch), but the cover closely resembles that of the paperback copy of "Inner Economist" available in the Netherlands. Coincidence?

It's also interesting how gratitude will decay if the same kind or helpful act is repeated several times in quick succession. For example, if you're walking through a series of doors (Maxwell Smart comes to mind) and hold each one open for someone behind you, you can expect a hearty "thanks" the first time. Every time after, though, the response is less enthusiastic.


Being in an academic department, the internal economy is pretty much based on doing favors. I've noticed that there is some resentment involved in favor-doing. Also, in some situations, who is the favor doer and who is the recipient is murky. Sometimes both people feel like they did a favor. For example, when a graduate student searches out a good deal, and the professor provides the money for a supply, both feel like they did the other one a favor. Now, if both feel owed and are not repayed, both will be worse off. Should you, as the student, go out of your way to show the professor that you really owe them for them going way out of their way in funneling the taxpayer money to you?

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