I Will Never Forgive You!

The evolutionary psychology of responding to social transgressions

Posted Aug 12, 2019

annca / Pixabay
Source: annca / Pixabay

Picture the following two scenarios:

Scenario A: 

You walk into a restaurant to meet up with some friends for lunch. You overhear your friend Lauren, who is facing away from you when you enter, say that she doesn’t really like your phone case. You immediately catch Lauren’s eye at that moment. Lauren then says to you: “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it—I was out of line.”

Scenario B: 

You walk into a restaurant to meet up with some friends for lunch. You overhear your friend Lauren, who is facing away from you when you enter, say that you just have the worst taste. You immediately catch Lauren’s eye at that moment. Lauren then says to you: “No offense, but it’s true.”

Now think about the following questions:

  • In which scenario would you be more likely to forgive Lauren?
  • In which scenario would you be more likely to be angry at Lauren?
  • In which scenario would you be more likely to feel betrayed by Lauren?
  • In which scenario would you be more likely to want to continue your friendship with Lauren?
  • In which scenario would you be more likely to plan some kind of revenge against Lauren?

If you’re anything like the 288 adults in our study (Geher et al., 2019), then the second scenario was more likely to get under your skin. People who were presented with that second scenario, compared with those who were presented with that first scenario, responded as follows:

  • They were less likely to report being able to forgive Lauren
  • They were angrier at Lauren
  • They felt betrayed by Lauren
  • They did not want to continue their friendship with Lauren
  • And many of them wanted to get some kind of revenge against Lauren.

The Effects of Transgression Intensity, Target of Insult, and Presence of Apology

Note that the two scenarios differ from one another in a few important ways. In both cases, your “friend,” Lauren, has slighted you. But in the first scenario, the slight was relatively minor (she doesn’t really like your phone case ... big deal!), the slight was directed at your property (and not at you as a person), and Lauren gave a nice, gushy apology. 

But the second scenario had some bite, right? The insult is clearly at you as a person, and it’s kind of mean. YOU have THE WORST taste. Ouch, right? And instead of an apology, she gives you the old “no offense, but it’s true.” Seriously Lauren?! 

In a between-groups experimental design with several variables and conditions, our results were pretty clear. The basic findings were as follows:

  • A strong transgression was harder to forgive than was a minor transgression
  • A transgression against oneself that was personal was harder to forgive than was a transgression that was not directed at a person per se
  • The presence of an apology hardly mattered

In fact, the only time that the presence of an apology seemed to matter at all was when participants were asked if they were would be willing to stay friends with the transgressor. We found a small (yet statistically significant) effect for apology on the “stay friends” variable. In other words: An apology following a personal transgression was mixed in terms of whether it pushed people into the “we are no longer friends” category. It had a modest yet statistically significant effect—essentially meaning this: “OK, I hear your apology and am not necessarily going to cut you off for this, but I am shaken, and you should be on guard …”

Dark Responses to Social Transgression and the Face of Revenge

One of our variables that behaved a bit differently from the others pertained to revenge. Wanting to plot and implement revenge against someone due to a personal transgression can be particularly pernicious. In our Results section, we dug deep into factors associated with predicting the desire to get revenge against the perceived transgressor.

Generally speaking, the best prediction of wanting to implement revenge pertained to scores on our measure of the Dark Triad (Narcissism, Psychopathy, and Machiavellianism). Simply: Participants who scored high on measures of the Dark Triad were likely to report wanting to get back at (or to plot revenge against) the perceived transgressor.

In short: Jerks want to plot revenge against those who have wronged them. And this general pattern was found to be both robust and reliable. Regardless of the conditions of the transgression that has been thrown one's way, those who are high in dispositional darkness are keen to seek revenge. Others are, generally, not. 

What about Super-Intimate Relationships?

The examples that we used in our experimental study are, importantly, both hypothetical and distal. That is, they pertain to situations that are general and somewhat distant in nature. And they pertain to relatively superficial relationships.

In the real world, and under ancestral human social contexts, social transgressions that matter often take place in highly intimate contexts—within small family systems, within romantic dyads, etc. 

Future research needs to more deeply explore these contexts. Are things different within families, when individuals are more closely genetically related to one another? Are things different in the contexts of romantic relationships, when transgressions are deeply personal?

Bottom Line

Humans evolved as a uniquely social primate. We evolved to develop strong bonds among one another and to form meaningful coalitions. And we evolved to take substantial steps so as to not be exploited by others in our own little spheres.

The research described here tells us that social transgressions and insults against us that are major and are that are perceived as personal in nature are especially difficult to forgive. This trend makes sense from an evolutionary perspective: Ancestors of ours who were not effective at discriminating “friend” from “foe” were at a disadvantage compared with others—and this is why and how they became our ancestors.

Want to stay closely connected to good people as you navigate life? Our research (Geher et al., 2019) has some clear implications:

  • Do your very best to not trespass against others in your world
  • Don’t insult others in major ways
  • Don’t insult others in personal ways
  • And hold the apology.

In Homo sapiens, apologizing after having transgressed has small effects. In other words: It’s better to not insult or trespass against someone in the first place than to be in a position of needing to apologize and hoping that it works. 

For more insights into the evolutionary psychology of how and why we respond to personal transgressions as we do, check out Positive Evolutionary Psychology: Darwin’s Guide to Living a Richer Life (Geher & Wedberg, 2020). 


Acknowledgment: Claps to my kids and their friends, Andrew, Griffin, Megan, and Nicole, for, during our amazing Maine vacation, taking the time to talk through parts of this post with me when I was writing it. Super helpful!!! (Oh, and Griff, HBD!)
NOTE: This article summarizes one of two studies that were described in our research article in Current Psychology. The other study, addressing the evolutionary psychology of estrangements, is summarized in THIS Psychology Today post here.