There are many reasons why humans choose to forgive, some that they tell themselves and others that they’ve come to believe because of what they’ve been taught by religion, family upbringing, and societal acceptance. Yet, forgiveness is a deeply personal act, one that demands careful thought and deliberation. Why do we forgive? Here are some science-backed (and other) reasons that may resonate.
Humans are Predisposed to Forgive
Research published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour that was conducted by psychologists at Yale, the University of Oxford, University College London, and the International School for Advanced Studies shines some light on the brain’s ability to form social impressions. The researchers found that when assessing the moral character of people, humans cling to good impressions, yet readily adjust their opinions of those who have behaved badly. This flexibility, say the authors, could explain why people forgive, as well as why they may remain in unhealthy relationships. The study’s findings conclude that people have a basic predisposition towards giving others – strangers included – the benefit of the doubt.
Women May be Better at Forgiving Than Men
A 2011 study by the University of the Basque Country found emotional differences between the sexes and generations relative to forgiveness. Among their findings: parents forgive more easily than their children, and women forgive more easily than men. Empathy is a key factor in the capacity to forgive, and women have greater empathetic capacity than men, according to the study’s co-author.
Empathy Can Be Developed
A 2014 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that when people learned that empathy is a skill that can be improved, and not a fixed trait of personality, they put forth more effort to experience empathy for other racial groups (than their own). Specifically, across seven studies, researchers found that this “malleable theory of empathy” resulted in more (self-reported) effort to feel empathy when the situation is challenging; more empathically ethical responses to another with different views on a personally important sociopolitical issue; more time listening to a racial group outlier’s personal emotional story; increased willingness to help cancer patients in a face-to-face manner; and a stronger interest in improving personal empathy. Researchers suggested these data point to potential leverage in increasing empathy on a broad scale.
Indeed, as an opinion piece in The New York Times outlined, empathy is a choice we make “whether to extend ourselves to others,” and that our empathy limits are “merely apparent, and can change, sometimes drastically, depending on what we want to feel.”
We Forgive for Ourselves
Holding a grudge, refusing to let go of bad feelings, constantly thinking about and seeking revenge for real or perceived harms exacts a tremendous toll, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. On the other hand, when we release the baggage of negativity and forgive others, we’re set free from that toxicity. Feelings of hurt, helplessness and anger naturally dissipate – whether or not the person forgiven forgives in turn or even knows they’ve been forgiven. Research published in the journal Aging & Mental Health found that forgiveness has a protective factor in health and well-being. In particular, said the authors, self-forgiveness among older women was protective for depression, when the reported feeling unforgiven by others.
Forgiveness is an Emotional Coping Strategy
A study published in the journal Psychology & Health cited direct empirical research suggestive that forgiveness is both related to better health outcomes and to mediating psychological processes so as to be an effective emotional coping strategy. Using forgiveness as a coping strategy may help reduce stress stemming from a transgression. Authors also suggested that forgiveness can affect health through relationship quality, religion and social support.
Later research published in the Journal of Health Psychology looked at the effects of lifetime stress exposure on the mental health of young adults and found that greater levels of lifetime stress and lower levels of forgiveness each predicted worse outcomes in physical and mental health. This study, the first to elucidate the cumulative effects of severe stress and forgiveness on mental health, led authors to suggest development of a more forgiving coping strategy may be beneficial in reducing stress-caused disorders and conditions.
We Choose to Forgive
Considered a forgiveness trailblazer by Time Magazine and other media, Robert D. Enright, professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and president of the International Forgiveness Institute at UWMadison, is the author of Forgiveness Is a Choice: A Step-by-Step Process for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope. In this self-help book, Enright (who is also the co-author of Forgiveness Therapy and author of The Forgiving Life, both published by the American Psychological Association) shows how people who have been deeply hurt by another can use forgiveness to reduce depression and anxiety at the same time they increase personal self-esteem and hope for the future. Enright points out that forgiveness does not mean condoning or accepting continued abuse, or reconciling with the abuser. Instead, he encourages us to give the gift of forgiveness, to confront and let go of our pain to regain our lives.
Noteworthy in the growing body of empirical research on the subject of forgiveness is the powerful therapeutic effect forgiveness exerts on the forgiver. Forgiveness is a conscious decision to let go of feelings of betrayal and negative feelings towards others and releasing these hostile, angry feelings that are so self-destructive. Yet, it’s not just those who’ve been harmed who benefit from forgiveness. Researchers found that even those with positive emotional health and well-being see improvements when they choose to forgive others. This demonstrates the power of forgiveness.
Why do we forgive? Perhaps it is something deeply embedded in the human psyche, a survival mechanism designed to perpetuate the species. It is also uniquely human to forgive, a choice we freely make.