Purdue University Graduate School
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posted on 2020-07-23, 17:43 authored by Peter O KearnsPeter O Kearns

Theorists conceptualize gratitude as incorporating either an interpersonal perspective in which an individual feels or gives thanks to another person as the source of a provided benefit, or an impersonal perspective in which one’s feelings of gratitude are not necessarily directed to other human beings as the beneficial source, but rather feelings of gratitude are attributed to a nonhuman source (e.g., nature, fate, luck, God, the cosmos). This latter perspective maintains that not only do people feel gratitude for valued benefits provided by another person (i.e., interpersonal source), but people can also experience gratitude for valued benefits that do not emerge or originate from others (i.e., impersonal source). Theorists also posit that over time, people can take any particular benefit for granted (i.e., habituate), failing to experience feelings of gratitude because they presume that the availability of a benefit/source is stable and certain, and unlikely to be lost. By comparison, evidence suggests that perceiving uncertainty or the potential loss of a benefit/source inspires a greater sense of gratitude. Reflecting on the pragmatic uncertainty of finite benefits/resources that are frequently taken for granted should lead to enhanced feelings of gratefulness.

Although the majority of empirical work examining feelings and functions of gratitude is structured around an interpersonal source perspective in which people receive one-time benefits, investigations focused on gratitude for impersonal sources of benefits remain scant and understudied. The present research follows from McCullough’s (2001) and Watkins’ (2014) call to increase empirical research examining gratitude in contexts in which the source does not involve a human benefactor. The current work including a pilot test and four studies (N = 1459) offers such an examination. The findings from this initial set of studies demonstrated some evidence that those with pro-environmental attitudes exhibited increased gratitude for water when provided with specific information about water’s value (vs an unrelated topic) (Study 1). I also found that people with more pro-environmental attitudes value water more when water is presented as a relatively more uncertain resource (Study 2). The effect of certainty on gratitude was replicated in Study 3, showing that those in a low certainty condition were more grateful for water than those in a high certainty condition. Moreover, gratitude for water predicted the intent to perform water conservation behaviors and interest in water conservation volunteering (Study 3). I also found some evidence that habituation mediated the effect between the perceived certainty of a benefit and lower gratitude, suggesting that people experience less gratitude for benefits they take for granted, in part, because they think less about them (Study 4). However, this affect only appeared consistently among more liberal, pro-environmental people. The current research contributes to and expands gratitude theory and research by providing some initial evidence that feelings of gratitude can serve broader adaptive purposes than is currently theorized. Thus, gratitude not only helps people identify and bond with social benefactors, but it also may serve as a generalized psychological system that prompts people to recognize and positively respond to most any form of benefit/source.


Degree Type

  • Doctor of Philosophy


  • Psychological Sciences

Campus location

  • West Lafayette

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

James Tyler

Additional Committee Member 2

Kipling Williams

Additional Committee Member 3

Janice Kelly

Additional Committee Member 4

William Graziano