“Thanks for the heads up!”: Why provide information (for free)?

by Mia Karabegovic & Hugo Mercier

“Free” information is so ubiquitous that we rarely question the motivations for producing and sharing it in the first place. We can hop on Wikipedia to learn about any topic, however niche, check diners’ experiences on Yelp to figure out where to eat, or consult book reviews on GoodReads to pick up the best new thriller. We receive advice from friends, colleagues, acquaintances, about anything from a prospective purchase to tips and tricks which make our jobs easier. Most of this wealth of information at our disposal is contributed by others who ostensibly gain nothing for providing it.

But all of these people – from friends providing advice to Yelp reviewers – pay some cost, at least in the time it takes for them to provide us the information (how often do you leave informative reviews of the places you’ve eaten at?). Why are we so willing to pay these costs?  Our hypothesis is there is something in it for them, and that something is gratitude.

Research on gratitude has shown that being on the receiving end of prosocial behavior elicits feelings of gratitude, which reflect on the perceived cooperative partner value of the one extending the favor, and lead the receiver to be more prosocial in turn – especially when it comes to reciprocating the favor. We used a model proposed by McCullough and colleagues to check whether gratitude for information behaves as gratitude for other prosocial behavior: that it increases with the amount of benefits the receiver gets from the advice, with the cost of the sender for providing it, with the intention to transmit the information to the particular receiver, and with whether it is provided gratuitously (i.e. without expecting immediate rewards).

Our first study presented online participants with different scenarios, such as imagining they needed advice about taxes or help in finding a rare postage stamp. We asked them to choose which advisor they would feel more grateful to out of pairs in which one either provided more benefits, paid a higher cost, intentionally provided the information, or did not ask for immediate reciprocation – and found that gratitude followed the theoretically predicted pattern.

When there was no difference between informants on the four dimensions, participants showed more gratitude to those who provided the information first. This “redundancy effect” might help to explain why journalists often scramble to break a story first and get the “scoop”: apart from selling more papers or getting more clicks on the news in question, they might also gain more future favor via gratitude. Competing to be “first” could play a role in disseminating unchecked or incomplete information, especially in competitive situations like the news sector or scientific publishing.

While our first study showed that the model of gratitude is generally applicable to the case of information, there are certain features which set information apart from the kind of prosocial behaviors that have been shown to elicit gratitude.

One peculiarity of information is that it can generally be shared with either a few or many people at once without losing its value to the recipients. For example, knowing about epistemic gratitude will likely benefit you equally whether two or two hundred people read this blog post. However, gratitude could still differ depending on the size of the audience because of perceived intentionality, which is what we found in a study pitting information shared with an individual versus a group: our participants reported feeling grateful towards those who provided the information to them in private more often than those who shared it with a larger group. This kind of strategy is sometimes employed in personalized marketing, which might incite more gratitude than usual ads with broader targets, because people might feel more grateful for messages that appear as if they have been sent to them specifically.

Secondly, unlike a gifted apple that can be eaten only once, knowledge can be reused and passed on to others. Do we favor the providers of such “gifts” over those who provide the same benefits, but only to us? In a follow-up experiment, we showed that people tend to be more grateful to those whose advice they can further employ to boost their own reputation by spreading, as opposed to advice which only carries benefits to themselves. Combined with the result of the last experiment, this might explain why rumors are often propagated from one person or very small group to the next, as it would maximize the gratitude of those whom the rumor is shared with.

Some other, broader implications of our results deserve a mention. One of the most salient benefits of information is to change our minds. We should thus feel more grateful for (accurate) information that challenges our views. But this might not be true for all kinds of beliefs, however. For political opinions, where accuracy plays a smaller role, people might feel more grateful to those who provide them with information that can justify their views, rather than challenge them.

People who share information do not always seek gratitude – sometimes, they want to appear competent. There are interesting tradeoffs in the way we might present the costs of information acquisition in this regard. Our study shows that, to maximize gratitude, we should stress the cost (or effort), while the same might not be true for competence. Taken to the extreme, this might help explain why some religious figures are presented as having paid a very high cost to deliver their message (Jesus Christ and the gospel being the paradigmatic example), while by contrast scientists might be more keen on describing their discoveries as flashes of insight. A possible strategy to maximize both gratitude and competence (for which Jesus Christ is, again, a good example) could be to emphasize the costs of transmission: in this case, we can appear competent (we easily thought of something clever) and simultaneously show we care about their audience (we incurred a substantial cost to relay the information). Competence should also not be affected by the size of the audience in the same way gratitude is – as a result, people who address broader audiences might be more tempted to try to appear competent (which can be done at scale), than to elicit gratitude in their audience.

We hope that this study will stimulate more research into what motivates people to provide information ‘for free,’ and how that shapes our informational environments.

Read the original article: Karabegovic, M., Wang, L., Boyer, P., & Mercier, H. (2024). Epistemic gratitude and the provision of information. Evolution & Human Behavior, 45(3), 252-260.