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), everyone knows everyone else. 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 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 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.
- Agreeableness and love. Those among us who generally are positively inclined toward others, who have the capacity to love others, and who tend to agree with others are relatively likely to forgive.
- Emotional stability. Those of us who have our emotional life together and are less prone toward fits of negative emotions are more likely to forgive.
- Other-orientedness. Holding an approach to life that largely focuses on the welfare of others is predictive of the ability to forgive.
- Genuineness in dealing with others. Some people are “Machiavellian” in their treatment of others, generally using others for their own gain. But some people are more genuine in dealing with others. And such genuineness is predictive of forgiving.
- Empathy. The ability to actually think, feel, and care about others’ emotions varies dramatically across people. Those of us who are better able to empathize with others are better able to understand the reasoning for a transgression and, along the way, are better prepared to forgive.
So the basic ingredients of being able to forgive someone after a major trespass or transgression may be seen as including: (a) appropriate and genuine apologetic and restorative behaviors on the part of the transgressor, along with (b) the psychological attributes of agreeableness and love, emotional stability, other-orientedness, genuineness, and empathy on the part of the forgiver.
Forgiveness may not always be possible. But when the above-mentioned ingredients are in place and true forgiveness emerges, people have the capacity to reconnect and solidify important and, often, loving bonds that can help themselves, their relationships, and the broader community in which they exist. Further, genuine, thoughtful, and heartfelt forgiveness to someone for some sort of betrayal or transgression sends a powerful message about the forgiver to the community. It is a conspicuous mark of taking the high road in life.
Here is to the all-powerful nature of forgiveness in the human experience.
As Alexander Pope wrote: To err is human. To forgive is divine.
Dunbar, R. I. M. (1992). Neocortex size as a constraint on group size in primates. Journal of Human Evolution, 22(6), 469–493.
Geher, G., Rolon, V., Holler, R., Baroni, A., Gleason, M., Nitza, E., Sullivan, G., Thomson, G., & Di Santo, J. M. (2019). You’re dead to me! The evolutionary psychology of social estrangements and social transgressions. Current Psychology. doi: 10.1007/s12144-019-00381-z
Gorsuch, R. L. & Hao, J. Y. (1993) Forgiveness: An exploratory factor analysis and its relationship to religious variables, Review of Religious Research, 34, 351-363.