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Who Do We Decide to Forgive—and Why?

These factors may make us more likely to treat someone leniently.

WAYHOME studio/Shutterstock
Source: WAYHOME studio/Shutterstock

What motivates the decision to go easy or hard on someone when they slip up or cross the line? Why do we forgive or not forgive?

There are probably countless factors that influence how people treat an offender, depending on the specific situation. Recently, researchers have highlighted three potential ones: utility, closeness, and signs of remorse.

What’s in It for Me?

When a coworker bad mouths you in the breakroom, it may be tempting to hold a grudge. But finding forgiveness might make it easier to work together on upcoming projects. A recent set of studies published in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior suggests that someone’s usefulness to us may influence our willingness to forgive their missteps.

In three studies conducted in the United States and Japan, participants recalled a recent transgression committed against them by an acquaintance, friend, or romantic partner. They also reported how useful that person had been before the incident in helping them achieve goals at work, school, or in relationships. This measure, known as “perceived goal instrumentality,” was significantly associated with participants’ reported forgiveness of the transgression—even when researchers accounted for the effect of relationship closeness.

“People tend to be more forgiving of ‘useful’ partners than less useful ones,” explains lead author Yohsuke Ohtsubo, a psychologist at Japan’s Kobe University. Someone hoping to gain another’s forgiveness, he suggests, “might want to make [herself] valuable to the target person.” Similarly, he adds, fostering mutual dependence—in which each person depends on and helps the other to a comparable degree—may help both parties in a relationship prevent minor interpersonal conflicts from escalating.

The inclination to forgive a useful person may seem materialistic or cold, Ohtsubo notes. But the researchers found that the relationship between perceived goal instrumentality and forgiveness was partly mediated by the victim’s heightened empathy for the more useful transgressor.

Ties That Bind

Two human desires are particularly strong: the desire to punish wrongdoers, and the desire to protect loved ones. When these drives come into conflict—and family members, partners, or close friends are the wrongdoers—how do we respond?

A recent paper in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin sought to find out. Across a series of studies, participants were more likely to predict that they would hypothetically protect someone who committed a moral infraction—covering for them, for example, by lying to the police—if that person was a close other rather than a distant other. Crimes ranged from minor (illegally downloading music) to severe (theft; sexual harassment). “As the severity of the crime increased, the protective instinct was expressed even more strongly,” reports University of Michigan psychologist Ethan Kross, who co-authored the paper.

When someone we love does something wrong, he hypothesizes, our “schema” about that person is challenged. “We tend to think that the people who are close to us are good, positive people,” he says. “I don’t have to think, ‘Is my wife a good or bad person?’ every time I see her.”

But after a loved one does something immoral, he says, “we need to totally reorient our schema. That can be major psychological surgery.” Reports by participants that they would deal with their loved one on their own, such as by verbally confronting them—without reporting them to the authorities—may have reflected attempts to resolve internal conflict, he notes.

When two people are close to each other, their lives become interconnected and their senses of self can begin to overlap. That may be one reason why, when making a decision about a close other—whether to report them, for instance—the stakes are higher than if they were a stranger. “Those decisions aren’t just about them,” Kross says. “They’re also about you, because who you are is embedded in who they are.” As the severity of the crime rises—along with its potential consequences—self-protective instincts may take over, he suggests, particularly if the act is likely to reflect especially poorly on those closest to the perpetrator.

Encouragingly, Kross and his co-authors found some evidence that a technique known as self-distancing—in which participants considered the situation from a third-party perspective—reduced the reported inclination to cover for a loved one who had committed serious violations. The technique, which is often used to help manage anxiety, has been shown in past research to be most effective in situations that engender especially strong negative emotions, he says. “When the crime is severe, the emotions [triggered] are a lot bigger. That’s where we think distancing has room to really bring people back in line.”

Like You Mean It

Public apologies—from celebrities, politicians, governmental bodies, or businesses—are often criticized for being stiff and insincere, and research has found that afterward, public forgiveness is hard to come by.

Would a more expressive show of remorse help public apologizers convey the genuineness of their apology and—perhaps—secure forgiveness? In a recent paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers found that public apologies that were accompanied by displays of “embodied remorse,” such as crying or kneeling, were perceived by participants as more remorseful; the apologizers were also seen as less likely to re-offend and more deserving of empathy.

“People shouldn’t just say they’re sorry—they need to show they’re sorry,” concludes Matthew Hornsey, a psychologist at the University of Queensland in Australia, and a lead author on the paper. “Wearing a suit and reading a gracious speech is good—but sometimes, to cut through, it needs to get a bit more raw.”

Whether the apologizer is truly more remorseful or not, nonverbal displays are often perceived as less controllable—and therefore more sincere—than verbal ones, he explains. “We know that people can lie with their words, but we have this sense that people’s bodies don’t lie as much. So rightly or wrongly, we think the nonverbals give the game away.”

But despite the positive effects, embodied remorse did not have a significant effect on participants’ reported forgiveness of the offenders. Hornsey, however, argues that that doesn’t negate the power of physically demonstrating one’s remorse. “If an apology builds empathy, makes victims feel safer, and makes them feel acknowledged, that’s powerful stuff—and valuable even in the absence of forgiveness.”