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A Grateful Heart is a Nonviolent Heart: Cross-Sectional, Experience Sampling, Longitudinal, and Experimental Evidence

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Five studies tested the hypothesis that gratitude is linked to lower levels of aggression. Although gratitude increases mental well-being, it is unknown whether gratitude mitigates against aggression. Gratitude motivates people to express sensitivity and concern for others and stimulates prosocial behavior. Aggression, defined as intentionally harming another person who is motivated to avoid the harm, runs counter to the motivation to increase others’ welfare and should be reduced among grateful people. Cross-sectional, longitudinal, experience sampling, and experimental designs yielded converging evidence to show that gratitude is linked to lower aggression. Higher empathy mediated the relationship between gratitude and lower aggression. These findings have widespread applications for understanding the role of emotion on aggression and can inform interventions aimed at reducing interpersonal aggression.
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Social Psychological and Personality Science
http://spp.sagepub.com/content/early/2011/09/02/1948550611416675
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DOI: 10.1177/1948550611416675
published online 6 September 2011Social Psychological and Personality Science
C. Nathan DeWall, Nathaniel M. Lambert, Richard S. Pond, Jr, Todd B. Kashdan and Frank D. Fincham
Experimental Evidence
A Grateful Heart is a Nonviolent Heart: Cross-Sectional, Experience Sampling, Longitudinal, and
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A Grateful Heart is a Nonviolent Heart:
Cross-Sectional, Experience Sampling,
Longitudinal, and Experimental Evidence
C. Nathan DeWall
1
, Nathaniel M. Lambert
2
, Richard S. Pond, Jr
1
,
Todd B. Kashdan
3
, and Frank D. Fincham
4
Abstract
Five studies tested the hypothesis that gratitude is linked to lower levels of aggression. Although gratitude increases mental
well-being, it is unknown whether gratitude mitigates against aggression. Gratitude motivates people to express sensitivity and
concern for others and stimulates prosocial behavior. Aggression, defined as intentionally harming another person who is
motivated to avoid the harm, runs counter to the motivation to increase others’ welfare and should be reduced among grateful
people. Cross-sectional, longitudinal, experience sampling, and experimental designs yielded converging evidence to show that
gratitude is linked to lower aggression. Higher empathy mediated the relationship between gratitude and lower aggression.
These findings have widespread applications for understanding the role of emotion on aggression and can inform interventions
aimed at reducing interpersonal aggression.
Keywords
aggression, violence, emotion, interpersonal relationships, interpersonal processes
To speak gratitude is courteous and pleasant, to enact gratitude
is generous and noble, but to live gratitude is to touch Heaven.
!Johannes A. Gaertner
Social life requires a balance between aggressive and prosocial
motivations in interpersonal interactions. To understand
why the balance teeters toward aggressive and not prosocial
behavior, researchers have focused primarily on negative emo-
tions that increase aggression (Bushman & Huesmann, 2010;
DeWall, Anderson, & Bushman, 2011). Yet, it may prove fruit-
ful to identify emotions that reduce aggression. Positive emo-
tions that have a built-in sense of generosity and empathy
may make people less aggressive. The current research seeks
to demonstrate that gratitude, a positive emotion associated
with greater generosity and empathy, can cause lower aggres-
sion. Most prior research paints the portrait of grateful people
as nice people. Our studies extend these notions to suggest that
grateful people are not merely nicer than others, but also that
they are less aggressive.
What is Gratitude?
People experience gratitude when they receive another person’s
intentional, costly, and voluntary positive action toward
them (McCullough, Kimeldorf, & Cohen, 2008; Roberts,
2004). Gratitude feels good, but it is not simply another form
of happiness. Indeed, prior work shows consistently that
gratitude is not reducible to general positive affect (Algoe
& Haidt, 2009; Kashdan, Mishra, Breen, & Froh, 2009;
McCullough, Emmons, & Tsang, 2002; McCullough, Kilpatrick,
Emmons, & Larson, 2001).
Gratitude has two main forms. The first is gratitude as an
affective trait, which refers to a chronic tendency toward
experiencing gratitude coupled with a diminished threshold for
experiencing gratitude (McCullough et al., 2002; Rosenberg,
1998). Lay notions of ‘‘grateful people’’ refer to people high
in gratitude as an affective trait. The second is gratitude as a
mood. Whereas gratitude as an affective trait refers to a chronic
pattern, gratitude as a mood describes the tendency to experi-
ence fluctuations in felt gratitude within and across days
(McCullough, Tsang, & Emmons, 2004). We focus on these
two forms of gratitude because they are best understood in the
1
Department of Psychology, University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY, USA
2
Department of Psychology, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT, USA
3
Department of Psychology, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA, USA
4
The Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL, USA
Corresponding Author:
C. Nathan DeWall, University of Kentucky, 201 Kastle Hall, Lexington, KY
40506, USA
Email: nathan.dewall@uky.edu
Social Psychological and
Personality Science
000(00) 1-9
ªThe Author(s) 2011
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literature. Gratitude as an affective trait and gratitude as a mood
are positively associated to each other and are linked to many
similar outcomes, including higher empathy (McCullough
et al., 2002, 2004). Hence, we expected to find similar negative
associations between gratitude and aggression regardless of
whether gratitude was measured as an affective trait or a mood.
Why Should Gratitude Relate to Lower
Aggression?
In an influential analysis of gratitude, McCullough and
colleagues (2001) suggest that gratitude is a moral emotion
because it functions as a (a) moral barometer (i.e., increasing
awareness that one is the beneficiary of another person’s moral
actions), (b) moral motive (i.e., prompting one to behave in a
prosocial manner toward the benefactor and other people), and
(c) moral reinforcer (i.e., with the expression of gratitude
improving the probability of additional moral behavior from
the benefactor). As supportive evidence for these moral func-
tions, gratitude has been linked to attributing positive outcomes
to the actions of others (Algoe & Haidt, 2009; Kashdan et al.,
2009; McCullough et al., 2001; McCullough et al., 2002),
behaving in a prosocial manner toward others even when doing
so is costly to the self (Algoe & Haidt, 2009; Bartlett &
Desteno, 2006), and perceiving close relationships as high in
quality and worthy of further investment or commitment
(e.g., Algoe, Haidt, & Gable, 2008; Lambert, Clark, Durtschi,
Fincham, & Graham, 2010).
We suggest that individuals who are more inclined to per-
ceive themselves as the beneficiaries of others’ actions (moral
barometer) and who subsequently behave more prosocially
toward these individuals (moral motive) will be less inclined
to find reasons to become angry and aggressive. When experi-
encing gratitude, a person is sensitive to the emotions,
thoughts, and actions that underlie the positive contributions
of others (moral barometer)—which reflects a shift away from
self-interests to mirroring and understanding another person.
The desire to reciprocate these positive contributions (moral
motive) is antithetical to the desire to aggress against or harm
another person. One mechanism that might mediate the rela-
tionship between gratitude and lower aggression is empathy,
to which we turn next.
How Might Empathy Explain Why Gratitude
is Linked to Lower Aggression?
Theoretical and empirical work suggests that gratitude is an
‘empathic emotion’’ (Lazarus & Lazarus, 1994) that motivates
people to express sensitivity and concern toward others and
to behave prosocially toward either the benefactor or unin-
volved third parties (McCullough et al., 2001, 2002, 2008).
Indeed, prior work has shown that gratitude (as an affective
trait and a mood) relates to higher levels of empathic concern
for others (McCullough et al., 2002, 2004). Empathy is among
the best understood emotions that promote prosocial and diminish
aggressive behavior. Therefore, gratitude’s relationship to lower
aggression may be mediated, in part, by heightened empathy.
Within the prosocial behavior literature, the empathy–
altruism hypothesis is the most prominent perspective on the
role of empathy on prosocial behavior (Batson, 1991). Across
dozens of experiments, empathic people tend to behave more pro-
socially compared to their nonempathic counterparts (see Batson,
1998). To be sure, some research has argued that the evidence
linking empathy to prosocial behavior is anything but iron clad
(e.g., Cialdini, Brown, Lewis, Luce, & Neuberg, 1997; Maner
et al., 2007). Still, a large corpus of work points in the direction
of empathy increasing, rather than decreasing, behavior toward
others that is caring, self-sacrificing, and generally positive.
Empathic people are not only nice, they are also not very
aggressive. To understand the impact of empathy on aggres-
sion, researchers take two strategies. The first strategy involves
identifying people who seem unable to experience strong
empathy and measuring their aggression. According to this per-
spective, being able to see things from another person’s view-
point and being able to care for another person’s welfare should
inhibit aggression. When people lack these abilities, they
should be more likely to behave aggressively. This is precisely
the case. People who chronically experience low levels of
empathy are extremely aggressive (Frick et al., 2003; Hare,
Hart, & Harpur, 1991). Indeed, being callous and unemotional
to others’ distress is a core feature of psychopathy (Hare, 2003;
Lilienfeld & Widows, 2005).
The second strategy involves examining whether empathic
people behave aggressively when they are exposed to condi-
tions that normally increase aggression. In one illustrative
experiment, people imbibed alcoholic or faux-alcoholic bev-
erages and then were given the opportunity to shock an opponent
with electricity (Giancola, 2003). Not surprisingly, alcohol
increased aggression—but this relationship was nonexistent
among highly empathic people. Hence, empathy can buffer peo-
ple from situations that normally increase aggression, such as
alcohol intoxication. These two research strategies converge
on a similar conclusion: empathy promotes prosocial behavior
and inhibits aggressive behavior.
Because experiencing gratitude activates feelings of empa-
thy, one reason why gratitude relates to lower aggression is due
to heightened empathy associated with gratitude. Aggression
runs counter to the motivation to increase others’ welfare and
therefore should be reduced among grateful people. Thus, the
current work provides the first empirical evidence regarding
the role of gratitude in reducing aggression, which may be
mediated by higher levels of empathy.
Study 1: Grateful Moods Relate to Lower
Daily Aggression
Study 1 sought to demonstrate that daily grateful moods relate to
lower aggression. Participants reported their daily feelings of gra-
titude, positive affect, and general aggression. We predicted that
daily feelings of gratitude would correlate negatively with daily
aggression, even after controlling for daily positive emotion.
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Method
Participants
A total of 200 undergraduates (76%women) participated in this
study for partial course credit.
Measures
Daily gratitude. Participants completed a 1-item measure that
assessed how much gratitude they felt that day (1 ¼Little or no
gratitude to 5 ¼Overwhelming gratitude).
Daily aggression. Participants completed an abbreviated
form of the physical aggression subscale of the Aggression
Questionnaire (Buss & Perry, 1992; a¼.82). To create a
composite measure of daily physical aggression, we included
the two highest loading items measuring physical aggression
(e.g., ‘‘Given enough provocation today, I might hit another
person’’).
Daily positive affect. Participants completed the positive affect
subscale of the positive and negative affect schedule (Watson,
Clark, & Tellegen, 1988; a¼.94), which assessed daily posi-
tive affect.
Procedure
Participants received an URL to record their feelings and
behaviors 3 times each week for 25 days. The online survey
included the measures of gratitude, aggression, and positive
affect. Participants completed their daily surveys at the end
of each day.
Results and Discussion
Our main prediction was that daily gratitude would relate
to lower daily physical aggression, even after controlling for
daily positive emotion. Because our diary data were noninde-
pendent, we used multilevel modeling to account for this
nonindependence.
As predicted, daily grateful moods correlated negatively
with daily physical aggression, B¼!0.27, t(199) ¼!3.21,
p¼.002. Controlling for positive emotion, daily gratitude
continued to predict lower levels of daily physical aggression,
B¼!0.26, t(199) ¼!2.95, p¼.004. Thus, daily grateful
moods related to less daily physical aggression, which was
independent of how much daily positive emotion participants
experienced.
Study 2: When Hurt by Others During Daily
Social Interactions, Grateful Moods are
Linked With Less Aggression
Study 2 sought to extend findings by examining the link
between gratitude and aggression within the context of actual
social interactions as they unfolded in people’s natural daily
environment over 2 weeks. Whereas Study 1 examined the link
between daily gratitude and aggressive tendencies, Study 2
examined aggression in response to provocation. Provocation
is ‘‘perhaps the most important single cause of aggression’’
(Anderson & Bushman, 2002, p. 37), making it desirable to
examine how gratitude influences aggression within social
interactions in which people experience provocation.
Participants recorded all face-to-face social interactions for
14 days. For each interaction, participants reported their feel-
ings of gratitude and happiness and whether their feelings were
hurt. If their feelings were hurt, participants reported how much
they expressed their anger toward the perpetrator. We had three
predictions. First, feeling more gratitude during a conversation
would relate to a lower probability of being hurt, presumably
because gratitude frequently occurs in response to benevolent
actions from others. Second, people who felt more grateful
would behave less aggressively during interactions in which
they felt hurt. Third, gratitude would predict lower hurt feelings
and aggression after controlling for how happy participants felt
during their interactions.
Participants
A total of 168 undergraduates (68.5%women) participated in
this study. Of these participants, 111 participants reported an
episode of hurt feelings during an interaction (79.4%women).
This discrepancy between the total number of participants and
the number of participants who experienced an episode of hurt
feelings is reflected in different degrees of freedom in the
results section. Participants reported a total of 938 face-to-
face interactions (M¼8.53, SD ¼8.00).
Measures
Participants rated how grateful and happy they felt during their
interactions (1 ¼not at all to 9 ¼very). For interactions in
which participants reported hurt feelings, they rated how much
they outwardly expressed their anger (1 ¼little to 9 ¼a lot).
Procedure
Participants received an URL to record all face-to-face social
interactions lasting at least 10 min. Participants were
instructed to record interactions on the day of their occurrence
(before they went to sleep). They were also encouraged to
make recordings at least twice per day over the course of the
2-week study.
Results and Discussion
We predicted that gratitude would relate to fewer hurt feeling
episodes, and less aggressive reactions when hurt or insulted,
even after controlling for positive emotion. To account for
the nonindependence in our data, we again used multilevel
modeling.
As expected, gratitude felt during interactions was nega-
tively related to the percentage of interactions where feelings
were hurt, with a log odds coefficient of B¼!0.43, t(164)
¼!9.03, p< .001. When participants’ feelings were hurt,
DeWall et al. 3
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being grateful related to less outward expression of anger
toward the perpetrator, B¼!0.54, t(106) ¼!5.62, p< .001.
Controlling for happiness felt during interactions, gratitude
felt during interactions remained negatively related to the per-
centage of interactions where feelings were hurt (B¼!0.15,
p< .001) and how much people expressed anger outwardly
toward the person inflicting hurt (B¼!0.32, p¼.02).
Study 2 offers additional evidence in daily life regarding the
relationship between grateful moods and less hurt feelings and
aggressive reactions to perpetrators. When people experience
more grateful moods, they are less susceptible to having their
feelings hurt, and when their feelings are hurt, to react aggres-
sively to the perpetrator/ perpetrators. Like Study 1, these
effects were unique to gratitude, remaining significant after
controlling for happiness. But these studies lack a crucial ele-
ment—they are mute as to whether gratitude causes people to
behave less aggressively. Study 3 addresses this limitation by
experimentally manipulating gratitude.
Study 3: Experimental Gratitude
Manipulation Reduces Behavioral Aggression
Study 3 sought to provide causal evidence regarding the posi-
tive effect of gratitude on reducing aggression. Gratitude was
manipulated by having participants write a letter about what
they were most grateful for in life (vs. what they most liked
to do), which has been used effectively in previous work to
increase feelings of gratitude (Seligman, Steen, Park, & Peter-
son, 2005). Hence, all participants wrote about positive things
in their lives, but only some participants wrote about gratitude.
We also manipulated provocation by having some participants
receive negative or insulting feedback on an essay they wrote.
Aggression was measured by having participants complete a
competitive task in which they could administer intense and
prolonged blasts of noise to an opponent. We predicted that
gratitude would buffer people from the negative consequences
of provocation on aggression.
Method
Participants
A total of 158 undergraduates (67%women) participated in this
study.
Procedure
Participants first wrote a short essay about a time when they
were angry, which they were told a same-gender partner would
evaluate later. After writing their essay, the experimenter told
participants that they would write a brief letter to someone with
whom they were close.
By random assignment, half of the participants wrote a letter
about five things in their lives for which that they were most
grateful. The other half of the participants wrote a letter about
five things in their lives that they like to do. This control condi-
tion sought to demonstrate that writing about gratitude, rather
than merely writing about positive things in life, would suppress
aggression in response to provocation.
Next, the experimenter returned to the room to deliver
the provocation manipulation. The experimenter handed
participants the essay evaluation sheet ostensibly from a
same-gender partner, which contained either insulting feed-
back (e.g., ‘‘This is one of the worst essays I’ve ever read’’)
or positive feedback (e.g., ‘‘Excellent essay!No comments’’;
Bushman & Baumeister,1998).
After receiving the feedback, the participants began the
behavioral aggression task. Participants competed against the
person who evaluated their essay to see who could respond
more quickly, with the winner delivering a blast of white noise
to the loser. On each trial, participants chose the intensity
(0–105 dB) and duration (0–2.5 sec) of the noise. The intensity
and duration of noise that participants set for their partner on
the very first trial were standardized and summed to create a
composite aggression measure (e.g., Anderson & Anderson,
2008; Bushman & Baumeister, 1998).
1
Results and Discussion
Validation of Gratitude Manipulation
To ensure that the gratitude manipulation had the intended
effect, two independent and trained coders (who were blind
to the study hypothesis) rated the letters for how much gratitude
the author expressed (1 ¼Not at all to 7 ¼Very much). The
coders also rated how much each letter’s author expressed pos-
itive emotion (1 ¼Not at all to 7 ¼Very much), which enabled
us to determine whether both the gratitude and the control
conditions motivated participants to write about equivalently
positive emotional events. Inter-rater reliability was adequate
for the gratitude (intraclass correlation: .87) and positive emo-
tion (intraclass correlation: .64) ratings. Therefore, responses
were collapsed across coders.
As predicted, participants in the gratitude condition (M¼
5.81, SD ¼0.61) expressed substantially more gratitude in their
letters than did participants in the control condition, M¼3.67,
SD ¼1.08), t(155) ¼15.15, p< .001. In contrast, the gratitude
(M¼4.70, SD ¼1.10) and the control (M¼4.75, SD ¼0.98)
conditions did not differ in the amount of positive emotion
expressed, t< 1, not significant (ns). Thus, the manipulation
had the intended effect of increasing gratitude but not causing
greater expression of positive emotion between the two
conditions.
Aggression
We predicted that gratitude would reduce behavioral aggression
among participants who were insulted. As expected, we found a
significant gratitude #provocation interaction, F(1,154) ¼5.26,
p¼.02
2
(see Figure 1).
Provocation increased aggression among participants in the
control condition, F(1,154) ¼9.48, p¼.002, but it did not
increase aggression among grateful participants, F< 1. Among
insulted participants, grateful participants behaved less
4Social Psychological and Personality Science 000(00)
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aggressively than did control participants, F(1,154) ¼5.22,
p¼.02. In contrast, among participants who experienced
praise, gratitude had no effect on aggression, F<1.
The results from Study 3 offer the first causal evidence
regarding the relationship between gratitude and lower aggres-
sion. An experimental manipulation of gratitude caused partici-
pants to behave less aggressively compared to participants who
wrote a letter about positive things in their life but were not
made to feel grateful. These effects were specific to when an
aggressive impulse had been stimulated through interpersonal
provocation. Thus, these findings provide converging support
for the hypothesis that gratitude reduces aggression, especially
in response to provocation.
Study 4: Empathy Mediates the Link Between
Gratitude and Lower Aggression
Studies 1–3 offered converging support for the hypothesis that
gratitude is linked to lower levels of aggression. Study 4 sought
to identify a mechanism underlying the relationship between
gratitude and lower aggression. We propose that grateful people
are less aggressive in part because of their higher empathy for
others (Lazarus & Lazarus, 1994; McCullough et al., 2002,
2004). Participants completed measures of gratitude as an affec-
tive trait, aggression, positive affect (included as a covariate),
and empathy for others. We predicted that gratitude would relate
to higher empathy and lower aggression, controlling for positive
affect. We also expected that greater empathy would mediate the
relationship between gratitude and lower aggression.
Method
Participants
A total of 175 undergraduates (84%women) participated in this
study in exchange for extra credit.
Materials
Gratitude. As in Study 2, participants completed the mea-
sure of gratitude as an affective trait (McCullough et al.,
2002; a¼.76).
Aggressive personality. Participants completed the physical
aggression subscale of the Aggression Questionnaire (Buss &
Perry, 1992; a¼.82). Example items include ‘‘Once in a while
I can’t control the urge to strike another person,’’ and ‘‘Given
enough provocation, I may hit another person.’
Empathic concern for others. Participants completed the pri-
mary factor of the Self-Report Psychopathy scale ([SRPS]
Levenson et al., 1995; a¼.83), which is used to measure how
much empathic concern people generally feel toward others
(e.g., ‘‘I make a point of trying not to hurt others in pursuit
of my goals’’). To facilitate interpretation, responses were
scored such that higher levels reflect greater empathic concern.
Positive affect. Participants completed the positive affect
subscale of the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule
(PANAS) (Watson et al., 1988; a¼.89), which assessed how
much positive affect participants experience generally.
Procedure
Participants completed all aspects of the study over the Inter-
net. After giving informed consent, participants completed the
gratitude, PANAS, aggression, and empathy measures.
Results and Discussion
As expected, gratitude related to lower levels of physical
aggression after controlling for positive affect, b¼!0.20,
p¼.01.
Next, we tested whether empathy mediated the link between
gratitude and lower levels of aggression (controlling for positive
affect). Gratitude related to higher empathy for others, b¼0.26,
p¼.001. After controlling for gratitude, empathy related to
lower aggression, b¼!0.35, p< .001. Mediational analyses
(using 1,000 bootstrap samples; Preacher & Hayes, 2008)
showed that higher empathy had a significant indirect effect
on the relationship between gratitude and lower aggression
(95%CI: !0.29, !0.06; Figure 2). Thus, grateful people are less
aggressive in part because they have high empathy for others.
To determine the reliability of empathy as a mediator of
aggression, and whether it mediated aggression longitudinally,
we conducted a final study. In Study 5, we examined whether
empathy mediated the relationship between gratitude and phys-
ical aggression over time.
Study 5: Longitudinal Evidence That Empathy
Mediates the Link Between Gratitude and
Lower Aggression
We conducted Study 5 to further verify that higher levels of
empathy mediate the relationship between gratitude and lower
08
on
Gratitude
Control
0.4
0.6
.
0.0
0.2
ggressio
–0.6
–0.4
–0.2
Ag
–0.8
No Insult Insult
No Insult Insult
Figure 1. Interactive effect of an experimental gratitude manipulation
on reducing physical aggression following interpersonal provocation
(Study 3).
DeWall et al. 5
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aggression over time. Study 5 also used a widely used and
validated empathy measure instead of using the primary factor
of the SRPS as our empathy measure. We predicted that initial
levels of gratitude would predict lower levels of physical
aggression over time, which would be mediated by higher lev-
els of empathy. We also tested two alternative models. First,
we examined whether lower physical aggression preceded
gratitude. Second, we investigated whether higher empathy
predicts higher gratitude, which in turn predicts lower physi-
cal aggression.
Participants
A total of 202 undergraduates (77%women) participated in this
study.
Measures
Gratitude. As in Studies 2 and 4, participants completed the
measure of gratitude as an affective trait (McCullough et al.,
2002; Time 1 a¼.79, Time 2 a¼.78).
Aggressive personality. Participants completed the physical
aggression subscale of the Aggression Questionnaire (Buss
& Perry, 1992; Time 1 a¼.86, Time 2 a¼.85). An example
item is ‘‘Once in a while I can’t control the urge to strike
another person.’
Empathy for others. Participants completed the empathic con-
cern subscale of the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI), which
is a widely used and valid measure of empathic concern (Davis
& Oathout, 1987; Time 2 a¼.76) that relates to gratitude
(McCullough et al., 2002, 2004). Responses were scored such
that higher levels reflected greater empathic concern for others.
Positive affect. Participants completed the positive subscale
of the PANAS (Watson et al., 1988; Time 1 a¼.92, Time 2
a¼.94), which assessed how much positive affect participants
experience generally.
Procedure
Participants completed all aspects of the study over the Inter-
net. After giving informed consent, participants completed the
gratitude, PANAS, aggression, and empathy measures initially.
Three weeks later, they completed the same measures again.
Results and Discussion
Primary Analyses
As expected, Time 1 gratitude related to lower levels of
physical aggression at Time 2 (b¼!.14, p< .001), even after
controlling for Time 1 physical aggression, and positive affect
at Time 1 and Time 2.
Next, we attempted to longitudinally replicate our media-
tional results from Study 5 by showing that empathy mediated
the link between Time 1 gratitude and lower levels of physical
aggression at Time 2 (controlling for Time 1 and Time 2 pos-
itive affect). Time 1 gratitude related to higher time 2 empathy
for others, b¼0.27, p< .001. Also, even after controlling
for Time 1 gratitude, and Time 1 and Time 2 positive affect,
Time 2 empathy related to lower Time 2 physical aggression
(b¼!0.36, p< .001). Mediational analyses (using 1,000 boot-
strap samples; Preacher & Hayes, 2008) showed that higher
Time 2 empathy had a significant indirect effect on the rela-
tionship between Time 1 gratitude and Time 2 physical aggres-
sion (95%CI !0.12, !0.02), controlling for Time 1 physical
aggression, Time 1 and Time 2 positive affect, and Time 2 gra-
titude (see Figure 3). Thus, initial levels of gratitude predicted
lower levels of physical aggression over time, which was
accounted for by higher levels of empathy for others.
Testing Alternative Models
We sought to test alternative models to demonstrate that the
direction of effect flows from gratitude to aggression through
empathy. First, we tested whether Time 1 physical aggression
would predict Time 2 gratitude. It did not. As expected, Time
β = 0.26**
Empathy
β = –0.32***
Gratitude Physical
Aggression
β = –0.20*
(β = –0.11)
* p < .05
** p < .01
***p < .001
Figure 2. Empathy mediates the relationship between gratitude and
lower physical aggression (Study 4).
Time 2
Empathy
β = 0.27*** β = –0.36***
Time 1
Gra!tude
Time 2
Physical
Aggression
β = –0.14***
(β = –0.10**)
* p <.05
** p <.01
***p <.001
Figure 3. Longitudinal evidence that empathy mediates the relation-
ship between gratitude and lower physical aggression (Study 5).
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1 physical aggression was not a significant predictor of Time 2
gratitude (b¼!0.08, p¼.16), after controlling for Time 1
gratitude and Time 1 and Time 2 positive affect.
Next, we examined whether Time 2 gratitude mediated the
relationship between Time 1 empathy and Time 2 physical
aggression (rather than Time 2 empathy mediating the relation-
ship between Time 1 gratitude and Time 2 physical aggres-
sion). As predicted, mediational analyses (using 1,000
bootstrap samples; Preacher & Hayes, 2008) showed that
higher Time 2 gratitude did not have a significant indirect
effect on the relationship between Time 1 empathy and Time
2physicalaggression(95%CI !0.04, 0.14), controlling for
Time 1 physical aggression, Time 1 and Time 2 positive affect,
and Time 2 empathy. Thus, gratitude did not mediate the rela-
tionship between empathy and aggression, providing additional
evidence in favor of the direction of our hypothesized model.
General Discussion
These findings provide converging support for the hypothesis
that gratitude is an antidote to aggression. Gratitude motivates
people to express sensitivity and concern toward others and to
behave compassionately toward benefactors or uninvolved
third parties. Aggression runs counter to the motivation to show
empathic concern and compassion toward others. Therefore,
gratitude, whether measured as an affective trait or a mood,
should relate to (a) lower aggression on a daily basis, (b) less
hurt feelings in daily interactions, (c) lower aggression when
feeling hurt or insulted, and (d) a less aggressive personality.
Because empathy is closely related to grateful people’s motiva-
tion to think of others and improve others’ welfare, the relation-
ship between gratitude and lower aggression should be
mediated by heightened empathy. Five studies, which used a
variety of methods and measures, offered converging support
for these hypotheses. These data, which are consistent with
prevailing theories of gratitude, provide the first evidence that
gratitude is linked to lower levels of aggression. Grateful people
are not simply nicer than others, they are also less aggressive.
The findings have implications for theories of emotion and
aggression. By taking into account how various emotions serve
unique interpersonal functions, clearer predictions regarding the
behavioral consequences of those emotions can be made. Our
findings showed that gratitude reduced aggression even after
controlling for positive emotion (Studies 1, 4, and 5), happiness
(Study 2), and in comparison to a positive control condition
(Study 3). These findings add to a recent chorus of scholars
championing the importance of considering the function of emo-
tional states in addition to their valence (e.g., Griskevicius,
Shiota, & Neufelt, 2010; Harmon-Jones et al., 2009; Kashdan
et al., 2009). Thus, gratitude can be considered an emotion that
is uniquely associated with lower levels of aggression.
Whereas dominant theories of aggression have focused
primarily on emotional states that increase aggression (e.g.,
Anderson & Bushman, 2002; DeWall et al., 2011), our findings
demonstrate the importance of considering emotional states
that reduce aggression. Gratitude is a positive emotion that
has a built-in feature of enhanced generosity and sensitivity
to others’ concerns. Empathy is consistently related to lower
aggression and higher prosocial behavior (Batson, 1991;
Giancola, 2003). The current work showed that higher levels
of empathy toward others consistently mediated the relation-
ship between gratitude and lower aggression.
To be sure, there are probably several mechanisms under-
lying the relationship between gratitude and lower aggression.
For example, grateful people, compared to their nongrateful
counterparts, may perceive provocation as less threatening.
This diminished hostile cognition may in turn reduce their
aggression. Perceptions of hostility consistently mediate the
relationship between provocation and aggression (Bushman
&Baumeister,1998;DeWall&Bushman,2009;DeWall,
Twenge, Gitter, & Baumeister, 2009). By attenuating these
hostile cognitions, gratitude may reduce aggression in the wake
of provocation. This possibility awaits future inquiry.
By establishing the benefits of gratitude on reducing
aggression inside and outside the laboratory, the current findings
can inform clinical interventions designed to prevent aggression
between strangers and intimates. Interventions aimed at reducing
aggression between strangers and intimate relationship partners
are historically ineffective (Anderson & Bushman, 2002; Bab-
cock, Green, & Robie, 2004). Future research should explore the
positive consequences of gratitude inductions on reducing
aggression and violence among people with a history of violence
and among couples seeking help to reduce aggression within
their relationship. This possibility awaits future inquiry.
More broadly, the current findings highlight the importance
of considering human strengths that can foster individual,
relational, and societal well-being (Seligman et al., 2005). In
aworldrepletewitharguments,hatred,andviolence,thisintri-
guing notion of gratitude as one of the underlying mechanisms
of resilience to aggression and violence is worthy of further
investigation. The emerging portrait of the grateful person is
one who has days filled with low levels of aggression and hurt
feelings, is loathe to behave aggressively toward close others or
insulting strangers, and whose overall beneficence in the face
of aggressive situations is due in part to being empathic to oth-
ers. Our findings shed light on the power of cultivating a sense
of gratitude in one’s life as a means of promoting not only men-
tal well-being but also as a way of increasing interpersonal and
societal well-being by reducing aggression.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to
the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.
Funding
The author(s) received no financial support for the research, author-
ship, and/or publication of this article.
Notes
1. Results did not differ by gender in this and all other studies.
2. Results were unchanged when analyzing responses across all of the
trials, responses after wins, and responses after losses.
DeWall et al. 7
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Bios
C. Nathan DeWall is an associate professor in the Department of
Psychology at the University of Kentucky.
Nathaniel M. Lambert is an assistant professor in the School of Fam-
ily Life at Brigham Young University.
Richard S. Pond, Jr., is a graduate student in the Department of
Psychology at the University of Kentucky.
Todd B. Kashdan is an associate professor in the Department of
Psychology and Center for Consciousness and Transformation at
George Mason University.
Frank D. Fincham is an eminent scholar and director of the Family
Institute at The Florida State University.
DeWall et al. 9
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