Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Why Are People More Forgiving When They Get Older?

The factors that lead to forgiveness.

Forgiveness can be difficult. When someone does something wrong to you, it often takes time and effort to get beyond what they did and to forgive. A common observation, though, is that older people (in their 70s and 80s) are much more forgiving than young and middle-aged adults. 

Why is this?

There are a number of factors that influence forgiveness that come together to make older adults more forgiving than younger ones.  

First, people who are religious tend to forgive others more often than those who are not religious. Older adults tend to be more religious than younger ones. As older adults become more religious, they become more forgiving.

Second, studies suggest that older adults experience fewer really negative interactions with other people than younger adults. In addition, because of their life experience, older adults don’t get as upset about these negative interactions as younger adults. These factors combine to make it easier for older adults to forgive others than younger adults.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

A third factor, explored in a paper by Marianne Steiner, Mathias Allemand, and Michael McCullough in the April 2012 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, focuses on personality factors. 

This work focuses on two observations. 

First, the tendency to forgive is related to the personality dimensions of agreeableness and neuroticism. Agreeableness is how much someone feels the need to do and say things that help them get along with others. Neuroticism is the degree to which someone feels negative emotions like stress, anxiety, fear, and sadness in response to life events. As you might expect, people high in agreeableness tend to be more forgiving than those low in agreeableness. People high in neuroticism tend to be less forgiving than those low in neuroticism.

Second, there is a drift in people’s level of agreeableness and neuroticism as they get older. Older adults tend to get more agreeable and less neurotic as they age. 

In two studies, the Steiner, Allemand, and McCullough examined personality characteristics and forgiveness in adults ranging in age from 19-84. In these studies, the older adults were indeed higher in agreeableness and lower in neuroticism than the younger adults. In addition, people who were more agreeable were also more forgiving than those who were less agreeable. People who were more neurotic were less forgiving than those who were less neurotic. Overall, this led older adults to be more forgiving than younger adults.

So, if you don’t happen to be an older adult, how can you help yourself to be more forgiving? One lesson to be learned from older adults is that most negative life events are less severe than they look up close. People clearly say and do all kinds of mean things, but few people are truly mean deep down. Holding a grudge against those people just provides you with fewer opportunities to see their good side. 

To help you put negative events into perspective, try thinking about them from the vantage point of an older adult. Think about being 80 years old and looking back on your life right now. Ask yourself whether the bad thing that just happened will really matter after all of those years have gone by. Often, you will find that they really don’t matter much. That can help to make it easier to forgive in the here and now.

Follow me on Twitter.

And on Facebook.

Check out my book Smart Thinking (Perigee)

Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

more...

Subscribe to Ulterior Motives

Current Issue

Just Say It

When and how should we open up to loved ones?