Gratitude Decay

I’ve said before that relationships suffer from the bias that "We tend to remember slights and frustrations more than favors and kindnesses."  More now from Marginal Revolution:

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.

Remember that when you accuse someone of looking at their partner(s) with excessively rose-colored glasses. 

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  • I think the last comment about rose-colored glasses refers to the fact that because of this bias, in any favor-reciprocating arrangement both partners would tend to feel slighted. The favors you do for the other person would seem to outweigh the favors they do for you. The fact that relationships nevertheless succeed then implies that the benefits must be even greater than would be objectively necessary, in order to overcome this bias. So rather than viewing their relationships and their partner with excessive optimism, as people in close relationships are often accused of, this bias suggests that if anything people will tend to be too pessimistic about their relationships, and their partners are even more valuable than might be apparent to outsiders.

  • Doug S.

    My father once misspoke and promised his “ever-dying gratitude” to whoever brought him the newspaper from outside. Our family has turned that into a running joke of sorts, as we immediately agreed that the phrase was extremely accurate.

  • dagon

    Is there a good word for the feeling one gets for giving a gift? Gratitude’s opposite is listed as “ingratitude” in most thesauri, but that’s the wrong dimension of opposite. I’m looking for something like “hope of reciprocity” but with the social subtlety and deniability that “gratitude” has over “acknowledgement of debt”.

    It would be nice to summarize this bias as “gratitude decays more quickly than X”.

  • One way that Julius Caesar bound people to him was by doing them outrageous favors they could never repay. He believed this would make them happy and loyal to him; however instead it cultivated resentment, as others felt they could never be free of their obligations, never “be their own men.”

    Likewise Caesar always kept a list, I have been told, of the slightest thing anyone did for him, so that he could be reminded to thank them for it every time he saw them, no matter how old or trivial – this way people believed that even smallest things were of important to Caesar and that he would never betray you, as if the great Caesar were in fact the one in your debt and that your personal relationship with Caesar was closer than it might really be.

    Both of these seem to be prima facie good strategies, but neither worked out. The first, I see why: people never want to feel indebted for a long period. But why did the second also fail?

  • Hal, yes this suggests we divorce too easily.

    Frelkins, good examples.

  • In Hardball, Chris Matthews argues that asking for a favor is better than giving a favor. Once someone has helped you, they are invested. If you do not do well, their investment is wasted, so take advantage of the sunk cost fallacy and encourage them to invest more. Who wants to look so foolish as to have supported a loser? Better make sure your guy wins.

    I might suggest, in reply to frelkins’s point, that Caesar’s problem might have been going too trivial. There is not enough buy-in from some small favor. The sunk cost is too low. Anyway, if a small thing brings that much favor, why bother to do a big thing? He still seems to appreciate those olives you brought last month, so no need to bring any more.

  • Michael Sullivan

    frelkins: very nice examples, but I have a question. you say “Both of these seem to be prima facie good strategies, but neither worked out. The first, I see why: people never want to feel indebted for a long period. But why did the second also fail?”

    Are you so sure they failed? By what metric did they fail? Did he achieve less (by our best guess at his personal utility standards) than he would have in a counterfactual world where he did not adopt these strategies?

    It’s very easy in hindsight to suggest that if his closest friends did not resent him for these lavish unrepayable gifts, that he might not have been assassinated, but it’s also possible that he would never have achieved his high level of political power without those strategies. And he may not have lived any longer as an undistinguished centurion/whatever than in this world.

    But just because we can imagine a better outcome for him taking his first N years of accomplishments as a given, doesn’t mean that adopting different strategies from year 1 would have been an improvement.

    Being relatively unschooled in roman history, I can’t even identify the specific way in which the second strategy is supposed to have failed. Is it again, merely that it did not succeed in inoculating him against any possible betrayal?

  • Perhaps there is a bit of sense to that, Hanson. Would you hang out with a person who frustrates only very slightly less than he makes you happy?

  • This is one thing where Ripple can help with – if you get into the habbit of keeping track of favours and allocating trust for unconditional favours, the gratitude is there to push future trades that might otherwise be impossible, reducing autarky.