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The role of actors, targets, and witnesses: Examining gratitude exchanges in a social context


Gratitude science often conflates the processes of actors recalling and sharing gratitude, as well as neglecting to study targets (benefactors receiving gratitude) and witnesses (those witnessing gratitude). We explored the roles (actors, targets, and witnesses) and processes (recalling, sharing, receiving, and witnessing) involved in gratitude exchanges. In Study 1, undergraduate students (actors; N = 369) wrote letters about either gratitude or daily activities to their parents (targets; N = 247), with half instructed to share their letters with their parents, and half not to share. In Study 2, adolescents (witnesses; N = 267) read either gratitude, positive, or neutral letters written by hypothetical peers addressed to benefactors. Actors recalling gratitude showed improvements in state gratitude, mood, and satisfaction (partial rs = .11 to.15; Study 1); actors sharing gratitude experienced boosts in state gratitude and relationship closeness (rs = .13 to.19; Study 1); targets receiving gratitude demonstrated increases in state gratitude, indebtedness, and elevation (rs = .14 to.16; Study 1); and witnesses observing gratitude reported increased positive affect and elevation (rs =.24), but decreased state gratitude (r = −.12; Study 2). These studies provide initial evidence that different gratitude roles and processes have divergent effects.

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