Humans Are Naturally Forgiving, Study Finds

LONDON — Is the human psyche pre-wired to be naturally forgiving of others? A new study suggests that people are inherently open to giving second chances (and more) after being wronged, perhaps explaining why so many opt to stay in troubled relationships.

Psychologists at Yale University, the University of Oxford, the University College London, and the International School for Advanced Studies led the study of more than 1,500 people who were tasked with evaluating a moral dilemma. Participants were asked to observe two strangers who were given the option of collecting cash — by administering painful electric shocks on another person.

Of course, in this moral dilemma, one of the strangers had good intentions, while other had more devious ones. While the “good” stranger typically opted to pass on shocking the victim, the “bad” stranger went for the money and mostly agreed to to the torturous task.

Participants were asked for their feelings about each of the strangers’ moral characters as they made their choices, and their confidence that their impressions of each were correct. The good stranger consistently received high praise and participants were quite confident of this, but when it came to the bad stranger, they were less sure the person was inherently “bad.” In fact, the participants were quick to forgive the greedy acts, and immediately embrace a more favorable opinion of the bad stranger when the individual opted to skip the cash. Just as quickly though, that impression would be soured once the bad subject returned to their dishonorable ways.

“The brain forms social impressions in a way that can enable forgiveness,” explains Yale psychologist Molly Crockett, senior author of the paper, in a Yale news release. “Because people sometimes behave badly by accident, we need to be able to update bad impressions that turn out to be mistaken. Otherwise, we might end relationships prematurely and miss out on the many benefits of social connection.”

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Crockett connects the study to the difficulties loved ones have when it comes to parting ways with partners, family members, or close friends who have wronged them in the past.

“We think our findings reveal a basic predisposition towards giving others, even strangers, the benefit of the doubt. The human mind is built for maintaining social relationships, even when partners sometimes behave badly,” she says.

The authors hope the study could also be used to better understand individuals with mental conditions who often struggle in social situations.

The full study was published Sept. 17 in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.