What It Takes to Forgive?

October 14, 2019

True forgiveness is one of the most powerful parts of the human experience. Yet it is neither simple nor easy.

An evolutionary perspective on forgiveness suggests that the nature of forgiveness in humans relates strongly to our ancestral history, in which humans lived in small-scale societies for eons. During this long period, which largely took place in the African savanna, our ancestors needed to determine whom they could and could not trust.

In a small-scale society of about 150 or so (see Dunbar, 1992), everybody knows everyone. And people gossip. So stepping out of line or betraying an individual in such a tight-knit context could have devastating effects. If your transgression is bad enough, you could be ostracized. Or, perhaps, even stoned to death. This is not a small thing in the light of evolution.

Our minds evolved under such conditions and, as a consequence, while we now may live in large-scale societies and find ourselves surrounded by strangers regularly, our reactions to betrayal and personal trespasses bring us fully back to our most basic evolved emotional psychology.

The Required Ingredients of Forgiveness

Our psychology of responding to personal betrayal and transgressions runs deep and connects with our most primal emotions. For these reasons, forgiveness is often difficult.

But when the motivation and the necessary ingredients are there, forgiveness is possible. And forgiveness can, in many ways, be one of the most empowering and fulfilling experiences in life (see Gorsuch & Hao, 1993, and our new book, Positive Evolutionary Psychology).

From an evolutionary perspective, it makes good sense that blind, unconditional forgiveness is not reasonable. Suppose I own a small farm and I feed my family of five completely from the crops and livestock I raise there. Imagine that every day, someone different from my community steals some of my food right from my garden. And imagine that I’m such a nice guy that each time I find out that I’ve been betrayed by one of my friends or neighbors in this way, I go over to that person, smile, and simply express my forgiveness.

That may kind of sound all well-and-good, but my family is going to starve to death as a result. And I’m going to be seen as a sucker by everyone.

Humans evolved to keep transgressive acts, especially acts that adversely affect themselves or their families, in check.

As such, one prerequisite to forgiveness has to do with restoration. Restoration will usually include some kind of apology (I am so sorry that I did that to you and your family!) along with some kind of assurances (You can trust that I will never do anything like that again!) along with some kind of restorative actions (Here is a gift card for the market; it has $1,000 on it. Please accept this as part of my apology for that terrible thing that I did to you and your family.).

Interestingly, recent research by my team (the New Paltz Evolutionary Psychology Lab; see Geher et al., 2019) has found that if a transgression is considered quite substantial and, concurrently, it is considered to affect one in a deeply personal manner, people find it very hard to forgive, even if a genuine apology and restorative efforts have been offered. This is not to say that forgiveness of a significant transgression is impossible. Rather, this is to say that it’s difficult.

We also found that some people are more inclined to forgive than are others. Here are the psychological attributes that we found as predisposing people to be able to forgive others.

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