Study: We underestimate the power of a thank-you note

After that great interview, we may go home and think vaguely about following up with a thank-you message. But then our fears get in the way. ‘Would that be too excessive? Would they even care?’ we worry, psyching ourselves out from following through on the plan. But a new study published in Psychological Science finds that we underestimate the power of a thank-you message to our detriment.

When Amit Kumar and Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago recruited participants to write thank-you notes via email to someone who had positively changed their life, they found that participants underestimated the positive effect their message would have on the recipient, and overestimated how awkward the recipients would feel about the message. In reality, recipients appreciated and said they felt really happy to get these small missives of gratitude.

“Miscalculating the positive impact of social connections on oneself, or on others, could keep people from being prosocial enough for their own well-being,” Kumar and Epley conclude. “Expressing gratitude might not buy everything, but it may buy more than people seem to expect.”

Why you should always send a thank-you note

A simple, genuine thank-you note is a “powerful act of civility,” the researchers write. But we let worries about social awkwardness get in the way of doing it. Age and gender did not make a difference in whether or not you underestimated the power of gratitude. Across experiments, participants appeared overly worried that sending a thank-you note out of the blue would be unwelcome.

For participants who worried “What will I actually write?” and “How articulate will I be?”,  they underestimated how warm and competent the recipient would see them for writing a less-than-perfect letter of gratitude.

“The first thoughts that may come to mind for people when deciding to express gratitude—their ability to competently articulate their gratitude—may be an unwarranted barrier to expressing gratitude more often in everyday life,” the researchers wrote.

Taking the time out of your day to jot down a thank-you note costs you nothing, but the payoff will be big. Don’t worry about getting the letter just right. If you are genuine about your message of gratitude, it is likely to be appreciated.