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Three Reasons Why Revenge Is Okay and Forgiveness Is Easy

An evolutionary lens of social behavior

For Japanese macaque monkeys, status is important. If a high-status macaque bites a low-status macaque, the low-status monkey will not attack back. The risk is too great. But stick around and you might observe something interesting. Every once in awhile, one of those bullied, low-status macaques finds a weaker relative of that high-status bully. It doesn't always happen 5 minutes later, an hour later, or even a day later. But once they find the bully's weaker relative, they will attack. And they won't embark on this attack late at night, when nobody is watching. The attack will take place right in front of that same high-status macaque who once hurt them. Its as if that low-status macaque is saying, "Listen, I know you are stronger than me, have more allies than me, and could squash me anytime you want, but I know how to hurt you so its best that you leave me alone in the future."

Revenge. It is not the province of evil doers, it is how creatures maintain order in a social system.

It is only in an evolutionary blink of an eye that human beings had governments, court systems, police officers, and prisons to offer safety and security (in theory). Before a court system ensured that people followed through with promises stated in contracts, social order was maintained by a combination of kindness and the threat of vengeful acts. Respond to a few bad deeds with unrelenting vengeance and you would gain a reputation as a bad-ass. This reputation ensured responsible behavior much better than firm handshakes, good eye contact, and a well-executed power pose. Acts of revenge are part of our evolutionary birthright. Those Japanese macaque monkeys often act a lot like humans.

Just as there is nothing uniquely human about revenge, there is nothing uniquely human about forgiveness. After being hurt by someone's wrongdoing, what leads humans, monkeys, whales, or dolphins to choose forgiveness over revenge? There are 3 factors that increase the likelihood you will forgive instead of avenge a transgression.


1. Careworthiness. The easier it is to adopt another person's psychological point of view, the easier it is to forgive them. Call it empathy, perspective-taking, or any other name, what is important is that you appreciate why another person is worthy of being forgiven. On the biological level, its about genetic relatedness. Its easy to forgive a child. It is such a mundane act to allow our child to transgress upon us and let it go, that it doesn't feel right to dignify this with the word "forgiveness". If you have kids they will leave a piece of fruit to rot in the sofa, they will use crayons to decorate the wall, they will eat all the bacon before the skillet is turned off. Is your willingness to show benevolence to these harmful acts a sign of forgiveness? Certainly. But it is effortless because they are oozing in careworthiness. Your romantic partner, is a mere fraction of this ease. Your siblings, a smaller fraction. Your close friends, a bit smaller. And as we move further away from your core group, forgiveness might proceed a little slower, requiring a little more effort.

[Note: this reflects typical responses. the extremity of damage inflicted, sense of intentionality, and personality of the transgressor and transgressed influence the willingness to forgive]

2. Safety. When you feel as if you can trust a person, then it becomes easier to forgive. When an organization makes it explicit that transgressions are unacceptable, and a greater sense of protection will be provided from here on out, then a forgiving attitude starts to be woven into the culture. Our ability to forgive is proportional to the degree that we are confident harm will not arise in the future, and our security needs are taken seriously.

3. Future Benefit. In deciding whether to let go of a grudge, we take into account whether we will get something in return. There is nothing wrong with this. At some point in the development of the self-help section of bookstores, our culture vilified the notion of selfishness. Selflessness became the goal. It is worth revisiting these black-and-white categorize to appreciate the beauty of grey. Selfishness means caring about our welfare. Being selfish does not mean you are quarrelsome, it means that you take care of your needs (which often means being loving and generous toward cherished people in your life). Take ownership of this mindset and you are more likely (not less likely) to be forgiving.

 

Once we know about what encourages people to forgive, it becomes easier to create the conditions that increase the probability of forgiveness. For instance, researchers have discovered that the simple act of writing about the lessons learned following someone's transgression can increase one's willingness to forgive. We can intentionally get people to focus on benefits and from this, pull for forgiveness over revenge. Simple instructions such as these:

Recently, someone did something harmful to you. For the next 20 minutes, we would like for you to write an essay related to that harmful thing they did to you. However, as you write, we would like for you to write about positive aspects of the experience.
In which ways did the thing that this person did to you lead to positive consequences for you? Perhaps you became aware of personal strengths that you did not realize you had, perhaps a relationship became better or stronger as a result, or perhaps you grew or became a stronger or wiser person. Explore these issues as you write. In particular, please try to address the following points: (a) In what ways did the hurtful event that happened to you lead to positive outcomes for you? That is, what personal benefits came out of this experience for you? (b) In what ways has your life become better as a result of the harmful thing that occurred to you? In what ways is your life or the kind of person that you have become better today as a result of the harmful thing that occurred to you? (c) Are there any other additional benefits that you envision coming out of this experience for you—perhaps some time in the future? As you write, really try to “let go” and think deeply about possible benefits that you have gained from
this negative event, and possible benefits you might receive in the future. Try not to hold anything back. Be as honest and candid as possible about this event and its positive effects, or potential effects, on your life.

 

You can intentionally design a work team so that people are more apt to forgive. Same goes for an athletic team or neighborhood. We don't need a designer; we need to be willing to design our world in an intentional way.

It is a given, each of will be hurt multiple times with the potential for deep, psychological wounds. Many of us are part of the walking wounded. Instead of trying to prevent the presence of pain, we can be more effective and efficient by cultivating a better tolerance of other people's mistakes.

 

For more, add these to your reading list:

Aureli, F., and de Waal, F. B. M. (2000). Natural conflict resolution. University of California
Press, Berkeley.

McCullough, M. E. (2008). Beyond revenge: The evolution of the forgiveness instinct. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

 

Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a public speaker, psychologist, and professor of psychology and senior scientist at the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University.  His new book, The upside of your dark side: Why being your whole self - not just your “good” self - drives success and fulfillment is available from Amazon , Barnes & Noble , Booksamillion , Powell's or Indie Bound. If you're interested in speaking engagements or workshops, go to: toddkashdan.com

Todd B. Kashdan, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology at George Mason University and author of The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self–Not Just Your 'Good' Self–Drives Success and Fulfillment more...

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