Writing Letters to Break Vicious Cycles

Economists in Germany find that expressing feelings to someone who hurts you could make you more generous to others.
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(Photo: Ryan Blanding/Flickr)

(Photo: Ryan Blanding/Flickr)

Human beings have a remarkable preference for fairness, albeit one tempered by selfish desires—which, unfortunately, have a habit of spreading like cancer, as one mistreated person begins to mistreat others. Now, fortunately, researchers have discovered a simple way to break the chain: Just write a letter to the one who hurt you, and make sure it gets delivered.

At issue in experiments conducted by Sabrina Strang, Bernd Weber, and their colleagues is what's called generalized negative reciprocity, really just technical speak for "somebody was mean to me so now I'm going to be grumpy and mean to everybody." Just about everybody's experienced this at one time or another, which underscores how important it could be to try to cut off generalized negative reciprocity before it starts.

Past research has shown that being able to express how you feel—specifically, that you feel hurt by actions you deem unfair—might reduce conflict between two people, though exactly how that works, or whether it extends to generalized negative reciprocity, is less than clear.

Something as simple as writing a letter could be an effective way to regulate emotions.

To explore those ideas, Strang, Weber, and their colleagues asked 92 women into their laboratory at the University of Bonn to play the part of the receiver in a "dictator" game (which isn't really a game at all). In a previous session, dictators had come in to the lab and split 25 Euros between themselves and the 92 participants, either fairly (12.50 each) or unfairly (20 for the dictator, five for the receiver). At that stage, the receivers didn't do anything—they just get the money the dictator decided to give them. However, the receivers did rate their happiness before and after getting their money.

Next, about half the women had a chance to write a letter to their dictator expressing how they felt about the split, and the researchers promised to deliver the letter. (In an accompanying experiment, the researchers found that happiness didn't improve if they didn't make that promise.) After rating their happiness level one more time, participants played a dictator game, this time in the role of the dictator, with an entirely new person in the receiver role.

Not only did letter writers report feeling happier compared to the control group, they also made more generous offers to receivers. Granted 10 Euro to split, those who'd written a letter gave their receivers 4.50 Euro, while those in the control condition gave just three. Furthermore, the happier someone felt after writing a letter, the more they gave to their receivers.

Though there are a number of limitations to the study—most notably, they did not study men, in part to avoid potential gender differences—the researchers argue that something as simple as writing a letter could be an effective way to regulate emotions. "Thus, using message writing as an emotion regulation strategy can interrupt the chain of unfairness," they write.

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