Expressing Gratitude: A Longstanding Human Tradition with Evolutionary Roots

by Ryan Lee
Gratitude Evolution

The act of giving thanks isn’t limited to holiday traditions; it’s deeply ingrained in our evolutionary history. As researchers delve into the science of gratitude, they are uncovering its pivotal role in the survival and cohesion of human communities throughout history.

Humans are inherently social creatures, and our ability to collaborate and cooperate has been central to our enduring success as a species. This isn’t about physical strength or size but rather our knack for working together effectively. One essential aspect of building these cooperative relationships is reciprocity: “If you extend kindness to me, I will reciprocate with kindness towards you,” explains Michael Tomasello, a developmental psychologist at Duke University.

Interestingly, similar patterns of give-and-take behavior exist in the animal kingdom. Malini Suchak, an animal behavior researcher at Canisius University, conducted experiments with capuchin monkeys and chimpanzees, revealing that these primates were more inclined to assist a partner who had previously helped them. Some scientists theorize that the emotion of gratitude evolved as a way to sustain these mutually beneficial exchanges. In essence, if someone aided you, you felt compelled to repay the favor with a good deed—a concept explored by Jenae Nelson, a researcher in gratitude at Baylor and Harvard universities. Nelson asserts that this fundamental give-and-take dynamic is primal and essential for the functioning of cooperative societies, preventing the emergence of a culture dominated by “takers.”

Reciprocity isn’t always a strict one-to-one transaction, as observed in both animals and humans. In some instances, an ape that received grooming assistance from another might later offer support in a physical confrontation. This suggests that reciprocity extends beyond keeping meticulous scorecards; it’s about establishing broader emotional bonds.

While we cannot definitively decipher whether chimpanzees express gratitude in the same way humans do, it is plausible that some form of social debt existed early in our evolutionary lineage, as Suchak suggests.

Fast forward to the present day, and gratitude has firmly taken root in the human experience. Studies have identified its presence in our genes and brains, particularly in areas associated with social bonding, reward processing, and empathy. Remarkably, gratitude surfaces at a remarkably young age, with children as young as 2 or 3 displaying a desire to return favors. By age 4, children begin to exhibit a propensity to “pay it forward.”

Moreover, gratitude transcends mere exchange; it has the potential to make us more generous and compassionate towards others, even if they weren’t the initiators of kindness. In fact, a 2016 study revealed that individuals who wrote letters expressing gratitude reported improved mental health and long-lasting changes in brain activity.

However, it’s crucial to emphasize that true gratitude revolves around acknowledging the giver, not just the gift. So, as Thanksgiving or any occasion prompts feelings of gratitude within us, let us focus on expressing appreciation to the people in our lives. This practice aligns more closely with the evolutionary origins of gratitude—it’s about nurturing relationships and reciprocating the kindness that others extend to us.

In summary, the act of giving thanks isn’t merely a holiday tradition; it’s a fundamental aspect of our evolutionary heritage that continues to shape our species and how we relate to one another.

Note: This article is provided by The Big Big News Health and Science Department, with support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science and Educational Media Group. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Gratitude Evolution

What is the significance of gratitude in human evolution?

Gratitude has played a crucial role in human evolution by fostering cooperation and social bonding, which have been instrumental in our survival as a species.

How does reciprocity relate to gratitude?

Reciprocity is a fundamental aspect of gratitude. It entails the idea that if someone extends kindness to us, we feel compelled to reciprocate with kindness, forming the basis of cooperative relationships.

Is gratitude a uniquely human trait?

While gratitude is found in humans, similar patterns of give-and-take behavior exist in the animal kingdom, suggesting that the concept of gratitude may have roots in our evolutionary lineage.

How early do children demonstrate gratitude?

Children as young as 2 or 3 show a desire to return favors, and by age 4, they exhibit a tendency to “pay it forward,” indicating that gratitude emerges at a very young age.

What are the potential benefits of expressing gratitude?

Expressing gratitude not only strengthens social bonds but can also lead to better mental health and long-lasting changes in brain activity, as supported by scientific studies.

Why is it important to focus on acknowledging the giver, not just the gift, when expressing gratitude?

Acknowledging the giver emphasizes the relational aspect of gratitude, aligning with its evolutionary origins centered around nurturing relationships and reciprocating kindness.

Who is responsible for the content of this article?

This article is provided by The Big Big News Health and Science Department, with support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science and Educational Media Group. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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ScienceNerd007 November 23, 2023 - 9:10 pm

Reciprocity in animals makes me think we aint so different from them after all, cool stuff!

APNewsFan November 23, 2023 - 9:52 pm

i didnt kno gratitude could change ur brain, that’s mind-blowing!

Reader123 November 24, 2023 - 1:52 am

wow! Gratitude is so imporant in our evoluton, its all about givin’ back and bein’ kind 2 each other.

NatureLover November 24, 2023 - 11:34 am

Animals and humans sharin’ kindness, it’s a beautiful world!

CuriousCat November 24, 2023 - 2:08 pm

kids start showin’ gratitood when they 2 or 3? thats amazin’, its in us from the start.


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