- The third-party forgiveness effect is people’s tendency to be less forgiving of someone who transgresses against a friend, rather than oneself.
- One study shows that when a friend’s partner and one’s own partner make the same mistake, people blame the friend’s partner more.
- In real-life forgiveness situations, the attributions as to why someone harmed a friend explained the third-party forgiveness effect.
Romantic partners mess up from time to time. They err by saying and doing things they shouldn’t—sometimes in the presence of close friends and family. Such mistakes might range from a minor faux pas, such as revealing that you dislike the food your friend brought to a barbeque, to more major and potentially relationship-ending slip-ups, such as infidelity.
When your partner’s mistakes are made in the presence of others, or you just vented and told your friends or family all about how badly your partner messed up, it’s not just you who decides whether to forgive. Can your friends or family also forgive the partner who transgressed against you?
The short answer is, maybe. Research by psychologists Jeffrey Green, Jeni Burnette, and Jody Davis reveals it may be much more difficult for those close to you to forgive the transgressions of your romantic partner than it is for you. This is due to a phenomenon referred to as the third-party forgiveness effect.
What Causes the Third-Party Forgiveness Effect?
According to Jeffrey Green and colleagues, friends and family may hold grudges against your partner long after you’ve forgiven them because of differing attributions.
In psychology, the term "attribution" refers to how people explain others’ behavior. When someone cheats on their partner, for instance, people may make either internal or external types of attributions. They may attribute infidelity to internal or stable factors, such as the cheater’s personality or character. They may blame the cheater by saying, “He’s a jerk” or “She’ll never be ready for a relationship.”
Or, they could attribute infidelity to external factors that might change or depend on the situation. They could blame everything else (besides the person who cheated), such as alcohol or drugs, stress, temptation, etc.
Importantly, people are more likely to forgive someone when they blame the situation rather than the person. That is, forgiveness is more likely following external, rather than internal, attributions.
Are Others Really Less Forgiving?
Psychologists Jeffrey Green and colleagues presented participants with a hypothetical scenario to test whether people are less forgiving of a friend’s romantic partner’s mistakes than the friend might be. To test this third-party forgiveness effect, the researchers asked participants to imagine going on a double date with their own romantic partner, a close friend, and their friend's romantic partner. In this hypothetical scenario, they then imagined that the topic of irrational fears popped up.
Half of the participants were asked to imagine that they were treated poorly by their date. Specifically, participants imagined that their partner revealed the participants’ own fear and started making fun of it, saying it was irrational and silly, and that they should “just get over it.”
The other half of the participants were asked to imagine that their friend was treated poorly by their date. They imagined their friend was being made fun of by their date because of their irrational fear.
Finally, all participants reported their type of attributions (i.e., do they blame the person who made fun? Or, was it the situation and probably wouldn’t happen again?). Then, they rated how likely they would be to forgive them.
Results supported the third-party forgiveness effect. Participants were less likely to forgive their friend’s partner (after making fun of their friend) than they were to forgive their own partner (after making fun of the participant). Even though each partner made the exact same mistake, people were less likely to forgive the person who transgressed against their friend.
Interestingly, participants also differed in the types of attributions they made for the transgressors' behavior. People were more likely to make internal attributions for their friends’ partner’s mistake (i.e., they blamed their personality) than they were when imagining their own partner making the same mistake. Importantly, the extent to which people made internal, rather than external, attributions explained differences in forgiveness.
Although this imaginary scenario supported the third-party forgiveness effect and showed the reason why it occurs, it wasn’t real life. In reality, people don’t imagine hypothetical scenarios of someone making fun of their friend or themselves—they experience it and then wrestle with forgiveness.
To address this limitation, the researchers conducted a second experiment where participants recalled a recent time when either their romantic partner committed an offense against them or a time when their friend’s romantic partner committed an offense against their friend.
Participants wrote about the offense in detail. They also rated its severity, using a scale that ranged from relatively minor (e.g., arguing about what color shirt to wear) to relatively major (e.g., sexual infidelity), and reported whether the transgressor apologized. Finally, participants also reported the types of attribution they made and whether they forgave.
Results again supported the third-party forgiveness effect. In real-life situations, participants were less likely to forgive their friend’s partner’s mistake than they were to forgive their own partner’s mistake. Importantly, participants were also more likely to make internal attributions for their friend’s partner’s behavior. And importantly, the differing attributions for one’s own partner versus a friend’s partner explained differences in forgiveness.
Green, J. D., Burnette, J. L., & Davis, J. L. (2008). Third-party forgiveness: (Not) forgiving your close other’s betrayer. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34(3), 407-418.