If you’re like most people, the very thought of forgiving an enemy probably makes you feel uneasy. This doesn’t make you a bad person—it just makes you human.
Forgiveness is difficult in part because evolution has endowed us with the psychological motivation to avoid being exploited by others, and one of the easiest ways to prevent exploitation is to hit back or simply avoid the exploiter. Therefore, any discussion of forgiveness must begin by thinking carefully about the desire for retaliation.
Two Forms of Retaliation: Revenge vs. Negative Reciprocity
Retaliation, including the violent kind, is perhaps nature’s most common conflict resolution mechanism. It is widespread throughout the animal kingdom, and its evolutionary function is basically to even the score by reversing any gains that might be had by the aggressor. However, not all forms of retaliation are the same. For example, the word "revenge" is often popularly used to describe any form of retaliation, but it is, in fact, one extreme form of it. Another form of retaliation is what researchers call "negative reciprocity." What’s the difference?
Revenge is an extreme form of retaliation that is meant to cause suffering for its own sake, and it tends to be out of proportion with the initial wrongdoing. According to Aaron Sell, this form of retaliation is uniquely motivated by the emotion of hatred, as well as the idea “that another’s existence and well-being will cause harm.” As Eran Halperin and colleagues also explain, hate is triggered in part by a belief that an out-group is actually unable to change their villainous ways. Revenge is driven by the perception (real or not) of the implacable foe: the maniacal menace whose mind cannot be turned, and whose behavior cannot be stopped.
At the group level, revenge has been the stubborn engine of social and political violence from the Hatfields and McCoys to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Anthropologists widely recognize that raids and “blood revenge” are among the most common form of and motivation for warfare across the world.
Part of the reason that revenge is so easily triggered between groups is because the evolutionary cards are stacked in that direction. As a consequence of our long ancestry in small nomadic groups, we possess evolved biases and intuitions that lead us to prefer in-group bonds to out-group associations, we are reflexively suspicious of strangers from other groups, and we are easily rallied by nationalist fervor.
These biases operate to make revenge appear easy and obvious, while reconciliation and compromise appear misguided and dangerous. Political appeasements that have led to reconciliation and peace are often forgotten or downplayed, while those that have led to further exploitation are dramatically and indefinitely ingrained in the social narrative. Thus, calls for compromise in the midst of international crises are often met with the familiar caution against repeating the mistake of appeasing Hitler at Munich.
Yet, disproportional acts of hateful violence are not always one’s immediate reaction to perceived injustice. We are often angry, yet not hateful. Our responses often fall significantly (and thankfully) short of the complete eradication of a rival.
This leads to the second type of retaliation mentioned above: negative reciprocity. The label itself conveys that an exchange of cost takes place: You harm me, and I respond with equivalent harm. Unlike revenge—disproportionate and motivated by hatred—negative reciprocity is more often motivated by anger, which research increasingly shows to be aimed, at least partially, at restoring rather than destroying relationships. Negative reciprocity, therefore, represents a relatively proportional response or punishment meant to change the mind of the target, and therefore holds the promise of repairing a cooperative relationship rather than foreclosing it.
Of course, unlocking the cooperative benefits of negative reciprocity depends on the punishment being carefully measured: A weak or timid response may invite further exploitation, while overreaction may lead to needless conflict escalation. In at least some contexts, it may be all too easy to assume the worst about the person or group that has wronged you. This is probably truest in the anarchic world of international relations.
For example, Dominic Johnson and Dominic Tierney show that when we are inclined to think the worst of others while being overconfident about our own abilities, the seeds of conflict and war are all but sown. In terms of revenge and negative reciprocity, the problem is that we are prone to seek vengeance when we should choose negative reciprocity. That is, we likely tend to escalate conflicts that genuinely don't need to be escalated, and we are prone to treat those with valid grievances as if they were filled with hateful malice. This kind of attributional tragedy is probably more significant between rather than within groups, but given the increasing lethality of political violence, this may be cold comfort.
Nevertheless, we are social organisms. This means we are particularly vulnerable to exploitation, but it also importantly means that we depend heavily on others for valuable cooperative opportunities.
Negative reciprocity opens the door to forgiveness, but more is needed. Jeni Burnette and colleagues argue that forgiveness is contingent upon information about the relationship value of the wrongdoer and the probability that the wrongdoer will harm us again in the future. Burnette and her team find that the combination of these two elements goes a long way to determine whether individuals and groups are likely to forgive transgressions, which also explains why a simple apology from others is frequently insufficient to leave us gushing with forgiveness.
To illustrate, consider two examples from international politics. In one study, Philpot and Hornsey found that political apologies for mistreatment of Australian prisoners of war during World War II had no effect on the willingness of Australians to forgive the perpetrators. In contrast, a study by Brown and his colleagues demonstrated that a political apology was sufficient to cause Canadians to forgive an incident in which their soldiers were killed by “friendly fire” by American soldiers. Rather than revealing the weak and inconsistent nature of political apologies, however, these examples help to demonstrate two important points about political forgiveness.
First, as Burnette’s team demonstrates, forgiveness is triggered when relationship value is high and exploitation risk is low. These conditions were arguably much more present in the case of the friendly fire incident than in the prisoners of war case.
Second, forgiveness tends to follow, rather than create, the conditions for reconciliation. Indeed, the political and economic relationship between the U.S. and Canada is one of, if not the most, peaceful and prosperous in the world. Apology and forgiveness may indeed be less frequent internationally, but its success is neither random nor impossible.
A Tangled Web of Motivation
Seen from this perspective, our retaliatory tendencies and capacity for forgiveness actually represent a complex web of interrelated motivational systems in humans that help us avoid exploitation, resolve conflicts of interest, and restore valued relationships—depending on the context.
The next time you feel someone has wronged you, it might be worthwhile to reflect upon the evolutionary roots of our complex desires for retaliation and forgiveness. Neither retaliation nor forgiveness is an unalloyed good: both involve significant risks and benefits, and both are to some degree necessary to enforce the norms and values that we care about, to repair valued relationships, and to build meaningful new ones.