It’s well known that when a person takes steps to make amends for a wrongdoing, the victim is more inclined to forgive and forget. However, exactly why that happens is less obvious and poorly understood. In a recent study, scientists made substantial progress in explaining the psychological processes that make forgiveness happen.
Their findings show that peacemaking efforts such as apologies, offers of compensation and owning up to one’s responsibility increase forgiveness – and reduce anger – by making the aggressor seem more valuable as a relationship partner and by causing the victim to feel less at risk of getting hurt again by the transgressor.
“All of the things that people are motivated to do when they have harmed someone they care about really do appear to be effective at helping victims forgive and get over their anger,” says Michael McCullough, professor of psychology in the University of Miami College of Arts and Sciences and principal investigator of the study. “People often think that evolution designed people to be mean, violent, and selfish, but humans need relationship partners, so natural selection probably also gave us tools to help us restore important relationships after they have been damaged by conflict.”