The Effects of Gratitude vs. Indebtedness

March 1, 2023

Stephanie M. Mangus, PhD, Dora E. Bock, PhD, Eli Jones, PhD, and Judith Anne Garretson Folse, PhD

Nearly all business exchanges and relationships are built around reciprocity, the practice of exchanging things with others for mutual benefit, which carves the way for people to experience feelings of gratitude and indebtedness. The two emotional states are similar because they both arise from reciprocity, but they lead to different outcomes in relationship quality, relationship satisfaction, and word-of-mouth communication. Learning how both emotional states arise and learning how to utilize them effectively when dealing with both buyers and sellers can help create more positive and profitable outcomes for an agent and the agent’s firm.  This study specifically focuses on how the salesperson’s feelings of gratitude and indebtedness impact seller-buyer relationship quality, relationship satisfaction, and customer word of mouth.

Stock Graphic Yellow Square with Talking Bubble Inside With the Words Thank You

Gratitude and Indebtedness

In a buyer-seller relationship, feelings of gratitude and indebtedness sprout from reciprocity. Gratitude is a positive feeling that arises after one receives a benefit. It’s an important factor in developing positive relationships, and there are two theories that explain why. The first is find-remind-bind, which occurs when people feel gratitude. In this instance, individuals are reminded where the feeling arose, who initiated the feeling, and the individual sense of gratitude that binds one to the person from whom it came. This further strengthens the relationship between the “giver” and the “receiver.” The second is moral affect theory, which states that gratitude is a moral affect similar to empathy, guilt, shame, etc. Because of this, gratitude can also be seen as a moral reinforcer, so when one party receives a benefit, the party feels energized and motivated to act in kind ways towards others. Gratitude has been shown to increase commitment and the bond between two parties, increase word-of-mouth communication, and improve relationship quality.

While gratitude is a positive emotion generated after receiving a benefit, indebtedness is a negative feeling in which an individual feels uncomfortable and desires to repay the person from whom the benefit was received. This emotional state arises from the reciprocity norm, which implies that individuals should help and not harm those who have helped them. With feelings of indebtedness, individuals may go out of their way to try to repay others and have thoughts of “I have to” rather than “I want to.” Another way individuals may rationalize feelings of indebtedness is by restructuring the thoughts that initially caused these feelings. For example, when one receives a benefit and feels indebted, that person may rationalize and assume the other party had ulterior, selfish motives. Both of these tactics are common ways that people use to rid themselves of feelings of indebtedness.

Similarity and Economic Value

Similarity between both parties and economic value are both precursors to feelings of gratitude and indebtedness. Similarity is the degree to which two parties match in terms of personalities, values, traits, and more. Certain characteristics, such as values, thoughts, and opinions have a greater influence than observable, physical characteristics. When two parties are extremely similar, or if they have numerous commonalities, research shows that gratitude is more heavily influenced rather than indebtedness. A salesperson in the real estate industry can utilize this knowledge to improve relationships with clients. Feelings of gratitude improve the bond between two parties; the more similarities between two parties, the more feelings of gratitude are increased when one party receives a benefit. Salespeople should identify similarities with clients to improve relationships and encourage positive feelings of gratitude toward clients.

Economic value is one of the primary drivers in business. Economic value does not only refer to financial benefits, it also includes knowledge gain and the overall ratio of quality received to costs incurred. Real estate agents must function to gain economic value for themselves and their firm; but our research shows that economic value increases both gratitude and indebtedness. Therefore, agents should not focus solely on economic value when aiming to improve perceptions of relationship quality.

Relationship Quality and Word of Mouth

From the sales agent’s perspective, gratitude—not indebtedness—strengthens and increases relationship quality and, therefore, positive word of mouth from buyers. Word-of-mouth communication is one of the most cost-effective forms of marketing; however, it is extremely difficult to receive this positive marketing if one has poor relationships with customers. Using knowledge of and paying attention to these emotional states can help salespeople to strengthen and improve buyer-seller relationships. Relationship quality is the overall strength of the relationship between two parties, and it can be a driver of various financial outcomes such as increased sales, premium pricing, and more. Gratitude increases the quality of relationships by strengthening the bond between two parties, which is consistent with both the moral affect theory and the find-remind-bind theory.

Unlike gratitude, salespeople’s feelings of indebtedness do not improve relationship quality. In fact, indebtedness can lead to deterioration of relationships, as individuals receiving the benefits typically wish to rid themselves of feelings of indebtedness. Indebtedness can cause individuals to distance themselves, and sometimes even cut themselves off, from the relationship altogether. Furthermore, a damaged relationship due to a salesperson’s feelings of indebtedness will hinder the likelihood of positive word-of-mouth endorsement from the salesperson’s customers. As a real estate sales agent, one of the best compliments is for a client or customer to refer you to one of their friends or acquaintances. Positive word-of-mouth marketing can foster more clients, increase the number of properties sold, and boost profitability. Gratitude can strengthen relationship quality, increase word of mouth, and increase overall success with clients.

Real Estate Implications

Emotions matter. Emotions drive numerous outcomes in every buyer-seller relationship, such as relationship quality, word-of-mouth outreach, and even profitability. By understanding the effects on sales agents of gratitude and indebtedness, agents can emphasize steps to strengthen relationships with lenders, clients, and other important players in the real estate transaction. Our research shows that managing sales agents’ perceptions of reciprocity may be key to improving client relationships.

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Recommended Reading

Mangus, Stephanie M., Dora E. Bock, Eli Jones, Anne Garretson Folse (2022), “The Comparative Effects of Gratitude and Indebtedness in B2B Relationships,” Industrial Marketing Management, 103(2022), 73-82.

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About the Authors

Stephanie M. Mangus, PhD
Assistant Professor, Baylor University
Dr. Stephanie Mangus’ (PhD – Louisiana State University) research focuses on buyer-seller dyads in sales and the sales and service interface, including service recovery and the emotions driving salesperson and customer behaviors. Her research has been published in the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, Journal of Business Research, Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management, Industrial Marketing Management, and Psychology & Marketing. She serves as the abstract editor and Editorial Review Board member for the Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management. Her work has been presented at conferences by the American Marketing Association, the Academy of Marketing Science, the Association for Consumer Research, the National Conference for Sales Management, and the Thought Leadership in the Sales Profession Conference. Dr. Mangus’ research and expertise have received international media coverage, including outlets such as The Huffington Post, CJAD Radio, WLNS-TV, The Art Newspaper, The Speaker, KIJK Magazine, among others.

Dora E. Bock, PhD
Bradley Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Marketing, Auburn University
Dr. Dora E. Bock’s (PhD – Louisiana State University) research focuses on customer relationships, gratitude, and decision-making. Dr. Bock’s work has appeared in the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, Journal of Retailing, Journal of Service Research, Journal of Business Research, Journal of Business Ethics, Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice, Journal of Personal Selling and Sales Management, Psychology & Marketing, and Industrial Marketing Management, among other journals and national conference proceedings. Dr. Bock’s research and expertise have received national media coverage, including outlets such as The Wall Street Journal, NerdWallet, HR Magazine, and Retail Executive and she has been the recipient of the Department of Marketing's Outstanding Research Award. Dr. Bock has also been recognized for her teaching and has received the prestigious Lowder Teaching Award, awarded by the Harbert College of Business at Auburn University, the Outstanding Teaching Award, awarded by the Department of Marketing at Auburn University, and the Excellence in Teaching Award, awarded by the E.J. Ourso College of Business at Louisiana State University.

Eli Jones, PhD
Professor of Marketing, Texas A&M University
Dr. Eli Jones (PhD – Texas A&M University) is a Professor of Marketing, Peggy Mays Eminent Scholar, and the former Dean of Mays Business School at his alma mater.  He served as the Dean of three flagship business schools over 13 years – Mays Business School, the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas, and the E. J. Ourso College of Business at Louisiana State University. Prior to becoming a dean, he was on the faculty at the University of Houston as an Assistant Professor, Associate Professor (with tenure), Full Professor, Associate Dean for Executive Education Programs, Director of the Program for Excellence in Selling, and the founding Executive Director of the Sales Excellence Institute. He has published sales and sales management research in top academic journals, and he is a co-author of two professional books, Selling ASAP, and Strategic Sales Leadership: Breakthrough Thinking for Breakthrough Results. His new book, Run Toward Your Goliaths, is about his and his wife’s faith journey. He is the recipient of Excellence in Teaching awards on the university, national, and international levels having taught strategic selling, advanced professional selling, key accounts selling, sales leadership, and marketing strategy at the undergraduate, MBA levels, and in executive education programs globally.

Judith Anne Garretson Folse, PhD
R.A. & Vivian Young Endowed Chair of Marketing and Chair of the Department of Marketing, University of Arkansas
Dr. Judith Anne Garretson Folse’s (PhD – University of Arkansas) research focuses on consumer-based strategy through explorations of source and message effects (persuasion), consumption emotions (e.g., gratitude, pride, regret, empathy), brand authenticity, and firm/customer interactions with theoretically and managerially relevant implications for bilateral and unilateral communications, services, and relationship marketing decisions. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Marketing, Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, Journal of Service Research, Journal of Retailing, Journal of Advertising, Psychology & Marketing, Journal of Advertising Research, Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, and Journal of Business Research, among other journals and national conference proceedings.