14 Things Science Can Teach You About Forgiveness
How forgiveness makes you healthier, who needs it most, and which offenses are hardest to get over.
The scientific literature on forgiveness came to the fore only in 1989
But some researchers suggest we’re seeing more public figures seeking forgiveness because we’re becoming more aware of the importance of achieving reconciliation.
Cats never forgive
Primates, like bonobos, mountain gorillas, and chimps, often follow confrontations with friendly behavior like embracing or kissing. Similar behavior has been observed in nonprimates like goats and hyenas; the only species that has so far failed to show outward signs of reconciliation is the domestic cat. Here’s how to decode your cat’s behavior.
No offense is unforgivable
“I have never found a particular injustice in the world that I don’t know of at least one person who has forgiven those who have perpetrated it,” says Robert Enright, a psychologist who pioneered the study of forgiveness. These inspiring stories of extreme forgiveness are unforgettable.
But beware of betrayal
According to a study from 2010, the most common type of unforgiven offense is betrayal, including affairs, deceit, broken promises, and divulged secrets.
There are different kinds of forgiveness
Decisional forgiveness is a sincere decision to change the way you intend to behave toward someone who has wronged you, even though you may still feel negatively toward the person. Emotional forgiveness is a change in the way you feel toward this person—resentment giving way to positive emotions like empathy, sympathy, compassion, and even love.
Young kids forgive easily
Unlike ten- and 11-year-olds, seven- and eight-year-olds in one study didn’t need an apology to forgive; they tended to judge offenders who had apologized and those who hadn’t as equally worthy.
Carrying a grudge literally weighs you down
Researchers at Erasmus University in the Netherlands asked people to write about a time when they either gave or withheld forgiveness. The human guinea pigs were then asked to jump as high as they could, five times, without bending their knees. The forgivers jumped highest, about 11.8 inches on average, while the grudge holders jumped 8.5 inches—a huge difference and a startling illustration of how forgiveness can actually unburden you.
Extroverts need forgiveness
Outgoing types are more proactive in seeking out forgiveness than introverts are (and also, notably, quicker to forgive others). Here are more hidden strengths of an extrovert personality: Introverts tend to be initially more concerned with forgiving themselves than making amends with a person they’ve offended.
For a healthier heart, be more forgiving
When people are reminded of grudges, their heart rate and blood pressure can increase. Forgiveness, on the other hand, has been linked to better heart health. Plus, you’ll sleep better when you let bygones be just that. But keep in mind you can’t fake it: Researchers believe that the health benefits associated directly with forgiving apply only to emotional, not decisional, forgiveness (see No. 5).
Forgiveness can backfire
Couples who described themselves as more forgiving also reported experiencing more psychological and physical aggression over the first four years of marriage. In some cases, it’s believed, forgiveness may keep the offending people from changing their bad behavior.
Don’t underestimate the words I’m sorry
Behavioral economist Dan Ariely has found that repeatedly asking forgiveness will eventually extract it from others—even if you don’t really mean it and even if the person you’ve wronged knows you don’t really mean it.
Religious people are more forgiving than the nonreligious
This is perhaps not surprising; most religions teach forgiveness, says Everett Worthington, a psychologist at Virginia Commonwealth University. But, interestingly, a 2013 study he coauthored found that people who consider themselves spiritual are more likely to practice self-forgiveness than people who called themselves religious.
The Amish are very forgiving
A decade ago, after a shooting at an Amish schoolhouse claimed five young lives, outsiders were stunned when the community responded with immediate forgiveness. But sociologist Donald B. Kraybill found that from an early age, the Amish practice forgiveness exercises. They’d been preparing to forgive this huge injustice their whole lives.
Here’s a five-step process to forgiveness
1. Admit you’ve been treated unjustly. 2. Respond with anger. 3. Work on seeing the person who harmed you as not solely defined by this offense. 4. Come to understand that the pain may not ever dissipate completely. 5. Find meaning in your suffering, perhaps by helping others.