When it comes to money, the more grateful we are, the more likely we are to give on behalf of the greater good, according to new research con­ducted by North­eastern Uni­ver­sity asso­ciate pro­fessor of psy­chology David DeSteno.

The study, funded by the National Sci­ence Foun­da­tion, found that grateful people act vir­tu­ously by giving financially—and not just to the people who caused them to feel grateful in the first place.

A long-​​standing view has held that indi­vid­uals tend to act out of self-​​interest and a drive for per­sonal profit. Under this thinking, a finan­cial deci­sion that favors the greater good requires indi­vid­uals to “tame” their emotions.

DeSteno argues, con­versely, that emo­tions actu­ally equip indi­vid­uals to make deci­sions that foster long-​​term com­munal finan­cial gain, even over imme­diate self-​​interest.

In the first part of his exper­i­ment, 85 par­tic­i­pants under­took an arduous task. Once it was done, half of the par­tic­i­pants were told that, because of a com­puter glitch, they had to per­form the task a second time. At that point, a “vol­un­teer” (actu­ally one of the study’s researchers) seemed to fix the com­puter, meaning the task did not have to be repeated and cre­ating a sense of grat­i­tude among the indi­vid­uals in that group. The other half of the participants—the con­trol group—did not expe­ri­ence the com­puter glitch.

For the second part of the exper­i­ment, both groups played a game in which indi­vid­uals chose an amount of money they would give to another. The rules of the game delib­er­ately pitted self-​​interest against com­munal interest—maximizing indi­vidual profit would have to come at the expense of max­i­mizing shared profit.

Study results showed that par­tic­i­pants who felt grateful in the wake of the com­puter “help” gave away 25 per­cent more money than those in the con­trol group, leading to a greater shared profit.

In addi­tion, they did so regard­less of whether they had ever met the people with whom they were playing the game, indi­cating that their giving was not a simple func­tion of liking or feeling a debt toward others.

It shows that grat­i­tude shapes deci­sions toward com­munal profit, or the social good, even at our imme­diate expense,” says DeSteno. “We are fair and gen­erous with others not because we think we should be, but because we feel an impulse in our gut that, in the long term, leads to greater sta­bility in social networks.

In essence,” he says, “grat­i­tude leads to virtue in finan­cial deci­sions. It makes you pay it forward.”

An article describing DeSteno’s research will be pub­lished in an upcoming issue of the journal Emotion.