Thursday, November 1, 2012

Thank You Notes and Good Intentions

By: David Pillow
(Editor's note:  this article is a reposting from the original published on September 1, 2012)

My mother knows how to write a thank you note. I know because I’ve received a number of thank you notes from her myself. I’ve witnessed her on trips obtaining addresses and information so that she might later send a note. Indeed—she plans, prepares, and organizes to carry out this simple ritual. Once the planning is done, she either buys or constructs a little card, then writes a heartfelt message of thanks, sticks it an envelope, writes the address on the envelope, puts a stamp on the envelope, and then puts the envelope in the mail. My mother is a fantastically gracious and grateful woman.

As for myself, I do an excellent job of forming an intention to write thank you notes, and I spend considerable time thinking about how I should write a particular expression of gratitude. But when it comes down to getting the job done, I seem to falter more than I succeed. Despite the great example set by my mother, I find that I somehow wallow around in that space between forming the initial intention and executing the requisite behaviors. I somehow allow myself to be distracted by stress, work, roaming the web, Facebook, or by lazily spending too much time in front of the TV. All that said, I consider myself to be a grateful person. I have a marvelous wife and many wonderful friends, coworkers, students, former teachers and relatives who have helped me in important ways throughout my life. I am very thankful for them and their many contributions to my life. And as I think the very thoughts that I just wrote in the last two sentences, I am filled with this enormous feeling of gratitude. If a person is what he or she feels and believes, then I’m a grateful person. If a person is what they do, then I have some serious shortcomings in the gratitude area.

It turns out that there is some interesting evidence regarding these if-then propositions. Justin Kruger and Thomas Gilovich provided research participants with an opportunity to earn 50 cents per minute for one of their favorite charities. All the participants had to do was to submerge their arm into a bucket filled with ice and near freezing water and hold it there. For every minute in which their arm remained submerged, participants would demonstrate their altruism as they earned (another) 50 cents for charity. Now these participants seemingly had good hearts and tried really hard to keep their arms submerged, but it is really, really painful holding one’s arm in a bucket of icy water and most didn’t manage to do so for long. When participants were asked to judge themselves on how long they held their arms in the icy cold, they estimated their behavioral performance as slightly lower than average. On the other hand, they rated their intention to be altruistic as higher than average. Now to the big question: how did they rate themselves with respect to the trait of altruism in that moment? There they saw themselves above average on altruism. In other words, their self-judgments followed after their intentions rather than their behavioral performance.

People see themselves through the privileged lens of their own intentions, even while recognizing that their behavior may not be quite up to par. They see themselves based on what’s in their hearts. The problem, of course, is that others don’t share access to those intentions; they can’t readily peer into our hearts. Our family, friends and acquaintances may give us the benefit of a doubt, but they fundamentally see us on the basis of our behavior. The experiment by Kruger and Gilovich further demonstrates this point as well. As the aforementioned participants were plunging their arms in the icy water and struggling to earn even 50 cents for a charity, they were observed by another research participant. These observers also made ratings of the first group of participants whom I’ll refer to as the actors. Their ratings indicated that they too perceived the actors as having good, altruistic intentions (slightly above average). The observers also thought that the actors had actually performed right around the average. But how did the observers perceive the actors on the trait of altruism? The answer is: average—right in line with how they saw the behavior.

The lesson of this research is as follows: we see ourselves through the lens of our own intentions, but others see us based on how we behave. That is likely one of many reasons that humans tend to see hypocrisy in others much more than they see it in themselves.

When I started college, one of my uncles sent me a check for $25 and said that he would continue sending those checks as long as I remained in college. The amount may seem trivial today, but in the late 70s, that amounted to almost 10% of my tuition (today a student would be lucky if $25 amounted to 5% of the price of their books!). I was very grateful, but alas, never sent a thank you note. Then the checks stopped. Once I realized the insult, I did what I usually do: I over thought and underacted. If I sent a late thank you note or an apology, I worried that it would be perceived as insincere—a virtual request to get the checks rolling again. That seemed to me as impolite as having failed to send the note that I should have sent in the first place. And with these thoughts running through my mind, I stalled out and did nothing.

Thirty years later, I’ve recently been thinking about expressions of gratitude and thank you notes from the other side of the fence. My wife and I have been positioned such that we were able to help our children to get through college with far less debt than the average student. I’ve purchased the cars that my children drive, paid for insurance, paid for auto repairs, and so on. I know full well that my children are very grateful. On the other hand, I don’t get many thank you notes, and sometimes I don’t feel that the gratitude is showing as much as I might like.

Based on comparative discussions with other parents, I’m not alone. My friends tell me that there is nothing more common than for parents to feel as though their efforts/gifts/provisions are taken for granted. I believe they are right. Children don’t share the same background experiences, and hence they don’t see through the rear view mirror as we do. Nevertheless, I recently decided to tackle the problem from another direction: after fixing his car, I told my son that the next check for tuition would not come until I received a thank you note. Sure—he said “thanks” at the time; but I wanted the note.

I wondered how I would respond when I received the note. Would it be meaningful to obtain an expression of gratitude that I effectively coerced? I was so surprised to find that the answer was, “Yes.” He not only wrote me a nice little note, but he put it on a card picturing a dog with a wagging tail. Come on…how would I not experience a warm glow?

We all want those closest to us to see what is in our hearts. In new ways, I’m still learning that it helps to crystallize what’s in the mind’s eye—taking pen to paper and writing one’s thoughts into a format that is easily observed by others.

…David Pillow

Post script: To my friends, family, and others who have not received a proper thank you note from me in the past: From the bottom of my heart, I am so thankful to have you in my life and for all that you have done for me!

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