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Twilight of the emotions: Gratitude

22 March 2021


J. Gary Bernhard, Ed.D & Kalman Glantz, PhD :
One might get the impression from previous blog posts in this series (Envy, Righteous Anger, and Guilt) that all the emotions our species evolved to facilitate cooperation relied on negative feelings designed to keep people in line.  But Trivers also includes an emotion that both feels good and builds trust. That emotion is gratitude.
The emotion of gratitude is embedded in the human genome because it facilitated reciprocal exchange, the hallmark of the hunting-gathering way of life.  Gratitude fostered, if indeed it didn't create, the inclination to reciprocate and thus made a major contribution to the cooperation that was so essential to our ancestors' survival.
Every known foraging society had traditions of giving and receiving gifts.  It may seem odd that people who had so few possessions were so invested in giving them away, but if you were in a foraging band making sure you could rely on the good will of others was more important than having stuff.  As anthropologist Lorna Marshall notes,
The custom of gift-giving, in my opinion, comes second only to meat-sharing in aiding the ! Kung to avoid jealousy and ill will and to develop friendly relations.  Almost everything a person has may have been given to him and may be passed onto others in time... The dealings in gift-giving are only between individuals, but they are numerous and provide occasion, perhaps more than any one other activity does, for visits which bring groups of people together.
It was important for the gifts to be either identical (knife against knife) or of equivalent value.  This gift exchange practice was not carried out to obtain any material benefit, but rather to give expression to a feeling of social solidarity, a sign of enduring friendliness.
Gift giving and receiving were closely monitored by all the members of the band, and failure to either accept a gift or reciprocate could trigger righteous anger.  As Marshall writes, "The two rigid requirements of gift-giving are that one must not refuse a proffered gift and that one must give in return".
Helping others was another way to generate gratitude.  The Utku, another Inuit group, link kindness and gratitude together in one word, "hatuqnaq," which anthropologist Jean Briggs translates as "inspires gratitude."  According to Briggs,  "In order to be considered kind or as 'one who inspires gratitude' a person must not only respond freely to requests, but must also offer help spontaneously, on occasion, in the form of goods or services".
Today, we still experience these emotions-we are still inclined to give gifts and help others, and we are grateful when we receive gifts and help.  But these inclinations do not rule our lives as they once did.  We live in a very different society, one that doesn't rely on emotion in the same way.
As we noted in an earlier post, money makes it possible for people to conduct transactions without building relationships.  A price is set by the seller and paid by the buyer; gratitude is irrelevant.  Rather than giving "expression to a feeling of social solidarity" money tends to isolate its possessors, who have less need of others.
A good example of how problematic gratitude has become in our commercial world can be found in the realm of political contributions.  Do candidates for political office experience gratitude when they receive a large campaign contribution?  Perhaps, but they might also feel cornered.  They know that the giver expects not reciprocity but influence, often disproportionate to the "gift" and sometimes immoral.  Gratitude can be dangerous.  Political gift-giving is a caricature of reciprocal exchange, twisted almost beyond recognition by selfish impulses and greed.  When does a "gift" become a bribe?  

(J. Gary Bernhard, Ed.D. has been involved in educational leadership for more than 40 years. Kalman Glantz, Ph.D. has spent nearly 30 years as a psychotherapist in private practice in Boston)

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