Sunday, August 13, 2017


Note:  At least four interesting things, none quite what is usual in the popular media, have come in by email or FB about Charlottesville.  I will be turning these around a bit in my mind before posting. If at all.

I recommend, for your edification, The Ben Franklin Effect. I first ran across it in Tavris and Aronson's book Mistakes Were Made, though it did seem dimly familiar, and I may have run across it before.  In my cynical way, I have usually thought of it in the negative: the more you give someone, the less grateful they are.  This includes things they don't officially know you have given, but could easily deduce if they dared think about it. Not referring to painful or embarrassing events from the past, for example, is certainly a gift. Yet when we give that gift we find that it is not appreciated as it should be.  Hmm.

This comes up in a humorous way because I am reading PG Wodehouse,* where barons and financiers and vicars all have some past embarrassment they wish to keep secret, and are willing to give large sums of money to keep everything hush-hush.  They are always fawningly grateful to the young man or woman who they believe knows the story but whose lips are sealed. Because it is fiction, that's the way it works.  In reality, the favor is either forgotten or eventually resented.  Odd, that.

Parents know this, but also know it is the way of the world.  What we give to children occurs largely before they are able to process and categorise, or perhaps even understand it.  What we give them later, when they have minds of their own, is more ambiguous anyway. Spouses come to know it as well, for even in happy marriages we are likely to be grateful for easy and even untrue things, while quickly forgetting the great sacrifices the other has made for us.

I tread carefully here, because some of my children, plus others who know them, read this blog.  But I notice this among them as well.  The sons who have received favors from their brothers are the least grateful about it. They are more than a bit oblivious about how much others put up with. There's something like an emotional Dunning-Kruger Effect.

I wonder if it is true that ungrateful people receive more favors. That would be a kick in the teeth, wouldn't it? Those who love them keep giving, thinking, like Bullwinkle trying to pull another rabbit out of a hat "This time for sure!"

But it doesn't happen.  The recipients go on, being insulting and irritable, certain in their righteousness.

One step deeper, and we get into sermon territory here.  If this is true, then it is true of us before God as well. We are not even aware of what we should be ashamed of and confessing.  It is in fact one of the quick tricks of pastoral counseling that if a person is obsessed about Sin A and is unable to get off confessing it and worrying about it, it's because there is another sin beneath the surface that they wish to avoid thinking about.  It's easier to remain focused on Sin A and gin up great sorrow for it.

*It's pronounced "Woodhouse," BTW.  I got that wrong for decades.


james said...

Perhaps another way of looking at it is that we were made to serve each other, and insofar as we willingly do so, we cultivate our true nature and become better and happier people--more ourselves and more willing to serve.

Retriever said...

First off, re the Ben Franklin effect, how different is that from the classic advice given in evangelical prayer groups to pray FOR a person one dislikes. And sincerely, not just :"I pray lord that you will make X less of a pompous windbsg, and reduce their potbelly, and make at least one person in the world like them" (because all of us in evangelical churches have heard the way some people use prayer for vendettas, as a way of gossiping, maligning their enemies while simpering about loving them). I have to admit, I am NOt good at praying for my enemies. But I think that in situations where one is forced to help a person one dislikes, or some terrible thing happens to them and one helps them, one does end up disliking them less. I am not, however sure, if this isn't simply because one feels better off than one's former tormentor. At least unconsciously. On the other hand, most people LIKE doig kind things for other people, so when we do something nice for someone we feel happier, and associate that emotion with the person, ergo we like them better. If I cook a meal for a sick person from our church, I tend to like them better (of course I love to cook...)

The stuff on gratitude (ie: the response) is more interesting to me. Sometimes people sense that we are using charity or good works to show how great we are or to appar superior to them. SO they are pissed, not grateful. And then, I think that sometimes we label people ungrateful who are simply so tremendously needy that even the genuinely kind thing we did or gave is only a drop in the bucket. Or they are so insecure that they doubt our motives in giving. Or they are too depressed to react "appropriately.". Or damaged by past traumas, deprivation. Someone with an easier life and a sunny disposition MAY be cheery and grateful.

There are some people, it's true, who have had a very rough life, who nevertheless have a sense of gratitude (to God, to others who have loved them). But I know plenty of people for whom life feels such a struggle, or who are still shell shocked by something and they don't thank prettily.

Some horrible sanctimonious people from my church (who gave ZERO help to my family after our entire lower floor was destroyed by Sandy, while bragging in our church newsletter about one time visits to help strangers in NY for a couple of afternoons) had made nasty remarks to me awhile before about how "disgraceful" the behavior of people in New Orleans after Katrina had been. These rich fellow worshippers of mine had engaged in ruin tourism to show how compassionate they were for a day or two THERE too. They had been shocked to see Katrina victims just sitting in lawn chairs and not vigorously cleaning up their houses and yards. COnsidered them shiftless, lazy and ungrateful. As someone who HAS had their home flooded (twice) I know that afterwards one is depressed, exhausted from work done before and after the brief period when ruin tourists put in their token appearance, and one feels hopeless. One also gets tired of saying "Thank you" when people bring you things you don't need when what you really need is companionship, someone to help you shovel out the muck, maybe a good hot meal and NO bromides about how God has a plan...My point is, nobody from church helped our family when we were flooded, so I didn't have to be grateful. But I am sympathetic to other people who DID get help who weren't able to jump up and down going "thank you for your bounty".

Retriever said...

With family, the phrase my own mother used to exclaim frequently was "sharper than a serpent's tooth" from King Lear. Presumably she had an inkling that some of us were less than thrilled with her parenting....

I think gratitude is something we often experience in hindsight, that leads a person to do good works LATER. To change their life, perhaps, to reach out and do something to help others perhaps years later. In other words, when we do something kind for someone it is natural to want to feel we have made a difference, and to feel appreciated.

This is especially true with kids. As parents, one certainly has years on end of feelig that kids are black holes for our love and care: we pour time and energy and money and love in, and sometimes feel taken for granted, or even (at some developmental stages) hated in return. BUT: one has to take the long view. Loving someone, giving something is planting a seed. We may never live to see the fruit of it.

I remember being reduced to tears when a kid of mine said they were grateful for something I had done over the years that had inspired them, the example it had set. During those years, I had thought said kid had despised me and I had felt that I was a failure as a parent, and wondered why bother. But, years later, that kid said that I had given them an incredible sense of security and taught them right from wrong. Well, if a lousy, bad tempered mom like me can do that when I FELT as if I was failing and thought the kids were ungrateful, maybe we shouldn't worry so much about whether people SEEM grateful.

I don't say this to be sanctimonious. But because I have often pondered exactly the questions you are posting about.

My point still stands, tho, however much it is our duty to raise our kids to express gratitude and NOT take kindness for granted, I think that we have to try and ask ourselves if other people we encounter are truly ungrateful or just in so much pain that they can't express much of anything positive.

This is not to say that one doesn't still waste countless hours on speculations about narcissists, sociopaths, bad seed when one gives to people who seem to take it for granted...or who seem to think one a patsy for it...I do THAT all the time, tho more outside the home (as I think my relatives have better characters than I do)....I just won't bore you any more....