When you’ve been hurt, betrayed, or disappointed by someone you care about, it’s hard to imagine giving that person another chance. Yet forgiveness is a value that is fundamental to human relationships. Giving up on people because they’ve let you down, whether it’s your favorite athlete, a political figure, or your best friend, seems antithetical to that value.
Even though we’re taught to forgive and to give someone an opportunity to make up for past wrongs, not everyone is capable of doing so. In a recent study, University of Bremen psychologist Katja Hanke teamed up with Christin-Melanie Vauclar of the University of Lisbon on a massive analysis of nearly 42,000 participants from 30 countries on cross-cultural variations in the personality trait of forgiveness. Presumably, in countries that emphasize the virtue of forgiveness, people would be more likely to espouse this trait within their own personalities.
As Hanke and Vauclar point out, we tend to think of forgiveness in interpersonal terms: Someone steps on your foot and it really hurts, but to the best of your knowledge, it wasn’t an intentional act. When the person apologizes, you accept it and don’t hold a grudge or strike back. However, forgiveness also has a larger intergroup context. According to the researchers, “Forgiveness seems to be a critical element in breaking cycles of counterviolence in postconflict societies” (p. 217). In other words, perhaps forgiveness might lead to healing and reconciliation among nations.
From the level of the individual to the level of the society, forgiveness seems to make a difference in the preservation of harmony. Analyzing the data from 168 separate studies, Hanke and Vauclar examined the relative ranking of forgiveness on a list of 18 values. Forgiveness ranked eighth overall, beaten out by virtues such as honesty (#1), responsibility (#2), and loving (#3), but it outranked imaginative (#17) and obedient (#18). (The U.S. ranked #4 in citing forgiveness as a value, and Egypt was #1. Poland, Chile, India, and Israel came in at the bottom of the list.)
The authors proposed that country-level factors that influence the espousing of forgiveness as a value were related to almost Maslow-like qualities, such as feelings of stability and safety. These “postmaterialistic” qualities are aided and abetted by time away from conflict. In countries with high levels of concern about safety due to the presence of conflict (such as Israel), forgiveness may fall behind values that reflect the need for protection.
Once a culture becomes more forgiving, there are payoffs for its citizens: As shown in the analysis across studies, there is a positive relationship between the average well-being of people in a culture and the extent to which they value forgiveness. Simply put, being forgiving seems to relate to being happier. Whether happier people are more forgiving (and happier in the first place because their countries are stable) or whether forgiveness leads to happiness and stability can’t be answered by this correlational study. Whatever the causal chain, though, forgiveness and happiness seem linked.
Now we get to the reasons forgiveness—and the associated willingness to give second chances—can benefit you.
With any luck, you live in a culture that places forgiveness high on the value hierarchy. Accidentally bumping into a stranger in the street won’t lead to insults or physical assault, and everyone will feel better as a result of an apology and display of humanity. What else can second chances do for you? These 4 reasons to forgive someone should help to convince you:
- That factor of subjective well-being. You feel happier when you forgive someone else. The cross-national study supported what research on individuals has shown, and suggests that being magnanimous pays off in terms of your own emotional benefits.
- People can change. Additional research on why you should give second chances focuses on the idea that personality isn’t set in stone. People can learn from their mistakes—and when you give them a second opportunity, you allow them to demonstrate this.
- It’s practical and saves emotional energy. You gave your mechanic the job of fixing a defective valve and now it’s broken again. You could hire someone else to fix the fix, but that person will know less than the mechanic who tried the first time. Similarly, your previous romantic partner may have done things that caused you to break up, but when you start with someone new, you’re back to square one. Once your anger subsides, pushing the “reset” button on the first partner may just give you greater insight and appreciation for that relationship.
- You’d like people to treat you the same way. Turn the tables and imagine that it’s you who needs the second chance. Wouldn’t you feel better if you were given an opportunity to try again? Whether it’s the car you’ve been hired to fix or the relationship that took a turn for the worse due to your own mistakes, it’s nice to know that someone is willing to give you a chance to redeem yourself.
When we have the opportunity to show forgiveness to those we interact with, we should: It can improve our outlook on ourselves and the world.
Hanke, K., and Vauclair, C. (2016). Investigating the human value 'forgiveness' across 30 countries: A cross-cultural meta-analytical approach. Cross-Cultural Research: The Journal Of Comparative Social Science, 50(3), 215-230. doi:10.1177/1069397116641085