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Is Forgiveness as Easy as ‘Ted Lasso’ Made It Seem?

Research suggests the team would have difficulty forgiving Nate.

Key points

  • People are more forgiving when offenders apologize and when the effects are not ongoing, according to a study.
  • A study of couples found that people are more willing to forgive people they are closer to.
  • Research finds that more agreeable people tend to be more forgiving.
Source: Apple TV+
A scene from "Ted Lasso".
Source: Apple TV+

Note: This post contains spoilers for the latest season of Ted Lasso.

The recently concluded third season of Ted Lasso included a redemption story for scrappy underdog-turned-nemesis Nate Shelley, who was ultimately welcomed back home to Richmond with open arms, seemingly completely forgiven.

But why was he forgiven exactly? In Season 2, Nate constantly belittled the team’s kit man, Will, leaked information about Ted’s panic attacks to the press, and ripped the team’s sacred “Believe” sign in half. In Season 3, when the team learns about that last offense, it sends them into a rage.

And yet, just a few episodes later, the entire team (including poor Will) is pleading with Nate to come back without so much as an apology from him. While Nate’s full-circle journey may be emotionally satisfying, it doesn’t make much sense given what we saw on screen.

But was it at least realistic? Um, also, no. To understand why, let’s look at what psychology research has to say about forgiveness.

The factors that promote forgiveness

In a 1997 study by Michèle Girard and Etienne Mullet, 236 people ages 15 to 96 read fictional stories in which one person wronged someone else and judged how appropriate it would be to forgive the offender. For example, in one story, one person divulged unflattering information about a coworker that caused their promotion request to be denied.

The stories varied on multiple dimensions, but the four they found that had the biggest influence on people’s willingness to forgive were: 1.) whether the effects of the offense were ongoing or not, 2.) whether the act was intentional or not, 3.) whether the offender apologized or not, and 4.) what type of relationship there was between the offender and the victim. (This was primarily an exploratory study, but they found basically the same results in a follow-up in 2002.)

Let’s consider Nate’s situation. First, he didn’t apologize (he was planning to, and he eventually did, but that was only after he was rehired). Second, his actions were clearly intentional. Third, most of the effects of his actions were still quite raw–we saw how angry the team was when they learned he was responsible for ripping up their sign.

So the conditions for forgiveness in Nate’s case were pretty weak. But what about the last factor: his relationship with the team?

People are more forgiving of people they’re close to

A 1998 study by a group of researchers led by Michael McCullough asked each member of 116 student heterosexual couples to recall the most severe offense their partner had ever committed against them and the most serious recent offense they had committed against them. They then completed some questionnaires to assess their feelings of avoidance, revenge, and positivity toward their partners, along with their feelings of commitment and closeness in the relationship.

The researchers found that the closer people felt in the relationship, the less likely they were to express feelings of avoidance and revenge toward their partner in response to the transgressions. This suggests that couples in closer and more committed relationships are less likely to hold grudges.

These results are only correlational, but a follow-up study suggested this correlation might be because increased closeness causes people to be more likely to apologize and have empathy for one another, which promotes forgiveness.

A romantic relationship is very different from a working relationship. But the Richmond team on Ted Lasso has always been very family-like. So it’s not inconceivable that some on the team viewed Nate as more than just a coworker or friendly acquaintance and may have been motivated to look past his transgressions. This may have been especially true for Ted.

Agreeable people are especially forgiving

That brings us to Ted and his seemingly superhuman forgiveness abilities. Unlike everyone else, he seemed to forgive Nate instantly and unconditionally, even though he may have had more reason than anyone to feel insulted and betrayed.

But this fits quite well with everything we know about Ted. It turns out to also fits with research on personality differences in forgiveness.

A 2002 study by Michael McCullough and William Hoyt collected personality data from 137 undergraduates. They then had them recall offenses committed by different people in their lives, like romantic partners and friends. Next, they completed the same questionnaire as in the romantic partner study to assess feelings of avoidance, revenge, and positivity.

The personality dimension most strongly correlated with feelings of positivity and forgiveness (and negatively correlated with revenge) was agreeableness, a dimension from the so-called Big 5 related to kindness, selflessness, empathy, and wanting to get along with others.

Ted Lasso? He’s pretty much the poster child for agreeableness. And it’s easy to imagine why, due to his powers of empathy, he would be able to put himself in Nate’s position and give Nate the benefit of the doubt when so many others couldn’t.

So is it a surprise that Ted forgave Nate? Not really. But would the rest of the team have forgiven him so easily? At the very least, it’s hard to understand why.

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