The bittersweet flavor of a favor: Gratitude, indebtedness, and social exchange

C. Peng

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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Lay Summary

Receiving favors or gifts is considered as a mixed blessing, as it elicits a positive emotion gratitude and a negative emotion indebtedness at the same time. Fascinated by this phenomenon, this dissertation studied the distinct yet complementary roles of gratitude and indebtedness in social exchange. Specifically, gratitude responds to the symbolic aspect of the favor that are associated with the giver’s care and concern of the receiver’s needs (i.e., relational concern), while indebtedness responds to the instrumental aspect of the favor that are associated with the costs and the resulting inequity it incurs (i.e., equity concern). Consequentially, gratitude promotes proximity seeking with the giver so as to build social bonds, while indebtedness promotes reciprocal behavior so as to restore equity.
This framework for understanding gratitude and indebtedness has provided new insights into some old research questions. First, I showed that indebtedness, rather than gratitude, promotes reciprocity. Second, I explained why money in different contexts is considered an acceptable or unacceptable medium of social exchange. In most contexts, money expresses little relational concern, undermining gratitude and the promotion of social bonds. But when people endow money with symbolic value, it can express relational concern and become acceptable. Third, I incorporated my framework to extend our understanding of communal relationships in social exchange. People in communal relationships respond to each other’s needs. I further found that when communal dyads exchange with third parties, they also share each other’s social debt (which is reflected in their responses of gratitude and indebtedness) when their partner extends favors to or receives favors from third parties. My work thus provides an account to understand qualitative differences between social exchange situations involving different resources and relationships.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
  • Zeelenberg, Marcel, Promotor
  • Nelissen, Rob, Co-promotor
  • Lindenberg, S.M., Member PhD commission, External person
  • van Dijk, E., Member PhD commission, External person
  • Mulder, L.B., Member PhD commission
  • van de Ven, Niels, Member PhD commission
  • Pronk, Tila, Member PhD commission
Award date13 Mar 2020
Place of Publications.l.
Print ISBNs978-94-6380-700-5
Publication statusPublished - 2020


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