Psychologist David DeSteno, in an Aeon essay
, summarizes his experiments suggesting
that moving towards a more virtuous life might accomplished by simply cultivating gratitude, a more simple route than through deep deliberation on noble qualities such as honesty and generosity. Subjects were asked to report the results of a coin toss in which heads yielded a larger financial reward than tails. The coins were rigged to always come up tails.
The percentage of cheaters fell by half (from almost 49 per cent to 27 per cent) among those who had just recalled a time when they felt grateful, compared with those who described a time when they felt happy or no particular emotion at all.
They then did a second experiment that..
...had two key differences. First, the coin flip determined whether any given participant would have to complete an enjoyable 10-minute task or a difficult 45-minute one. Second, we led participants to believe that the next person to come would be assigned to complete whichever task remained.
In deciding to cheat by reporting that the virtual coin flip came up heads, people were giving themselves a much shorter and more enjoyable task, but in so doing, were also unfairly dooming another person to a more onerous task.
As one might imagine, the overall frequency of cheating was lower. Nonetheless, gratitude worked in the exact same way. Whereas 17 per cent of people cheated when feeling neutral or happy, only 2 per cent cheated when feeling grateful.
The empirical literature shows a similar influence of gratitude on other virtues. People feeling grateful are more likely to help others who request assistance, to divide their profits in a more egalitarian way, to be loyal even at cost to themselves, to be less materialistic, and even to exercise as opposed to loafing.
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