But gratitude has a dark side. Namely, it can impel us to eat more sweets, according to new research by Ann Schlosser, a professor of marketing at the University of Washington Foster School of Business.
“Gratitude has sweet side effects,” says Schlosser, an Evert McCabe Faculty Fellow. “This study finds evidence that feeling grateful for the helpful—or metaphorically ‘sweet’—actions of others increases preference for and consumption of sweets.”
And the more we feel connected to others, the more we are tempted to indulge in sweet things when we’re in a state of appreciation.
Around the world, people use flavor classifications as easy metaphors for emotions. While salty, sour and bitter often evoke more negative connotations, sweet is almost universally associated with benefiting from the positive actions of another. Empathy. Generosity. Kindness.
But beyond the metaphorical connection, is there an actual connection between kindness and sweetness?
To find out, Schlosser designed a series of studies triggering feelings of gratitude and other emotions in participants, then measured their tendencies to select and consume sweet or savory indulgences—or nothing at all. Through different variations on this simple design, she was able to establish that gratitude elevates one’s preference for sweets. It does not, however, increase consumption of other kinds of foods. In fact, gratitude actually decreased preference for sour, salty or bitter foods that are metaphorically incongruent with acts of kindness.
“Because gratitude involves acknowledging benefits received from the kind (or metaphorically sweet) actions of another, individuals may infer that they must be deserving of sweetness,” Schlosser says. “As a result, they prefer foods with a congruent sweet taste.”
The study also demonstrates that the positive feeling of pride does not yield the same yearning for sweets as gratitude does because it does not carry the same “sweet” associations.
One other revelation from the study: the effect of gratitude on sweet preferences is strongest for those who feel connected to others.
Schlosser says this may have to do with the difference between people who feel psychologically connected to others and people who feel psychologically separate from others. When feeling psychologically separate, individuals value independence and tend to view people individually. When feeling psychologically connected, individuals see more similarities between themselves and others and view people more interdependently.
The sweetening effect of gratitude proved strongest on people who felt psychologically connected to others.
“Psychologically-connected individuals are typically more accepting of help and more likely to see themselves as playing a role in the kind act,” Schlosser says. “When they feel gratitude, they feel like they deserve this kind act, this sweetness. Psychologically-separate individuals don’t make as strong a gratitude connection.”
What’s my motivation?
The dangers of refined sugar have been well documented recently. Sugar is considered addictive, and its overconsumption contributes to obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and a litany of other diseases and disorders.
Schlosser says she had mixed feelings about identifying this downside of gratitude, and empirically linking it with a heightened desire for sweets. But her work contributes to a growing understanding of consumer behavior that serves the interests of public policy over marketing strategy.
“Increased sugar consumption causes many serious health consequences,” Schlosser says. “And prior research tells us that people are largely unaware of the factors that drive their consumption.”
She gingerly adds the reminder that holidays such as Christmas, Thanksgiving, Mother’s Day and birthdays may be particularly dangerous for overdoing it on sweets because they are both occasions for gratitude and times when people feel connected to others. “These are times when gratitude is being expressed and we’re likely to be with a group and feeling especially interdependent,” says Schlosser. “Being conscious of how these occasions might make you more likely to overconsume—especially sweet foods—can help you resist at least some of the temptation.”
“The Sweet Taste of Gratitude: Feeling Grateful Increases Choice and Consumption of Sweets” is forthcoming in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.