Researchers have identified a simple bias that makes forgiveness so hard

Two cupped hands holding a stone with forgive written on itBy Alex Fradera

Tom Tate’s second visit to the German town of Pforzheim was a return to somewhere he hadn’t seen in fifty years. After bailing from a burning plane, he and his RAF squad had landed there, been captured, and his comrades executed by a Hitler Youth group incensed by the bombing the town had suffered. Tate himself had only escaped by moments, and swore never to return to a place that he believed bore only hate against him. But spurred by a magazine article that mentioned an annual service held to commemorate the atrocity, he decided to make the journey. Once there, he found himself welcomed by a population who deeply regretted their actions.

This story opens a new article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which investigates whether we underestimate how much our persecutors seek forgiveness. Relevant here is classic research that suggests a difference of perspective in how we judge people’s actions – we see our own actions as being strongly influenced by the situation we’re in, but when judging other another person’s actions we seem him or her as more directly responsible (sometimes described as the actor-observer bias). Researchers Gabrielle Adams and M. Ena Inesi thought that the same bias might be relevant to when one person harms another – that victims will typically assume the perpetrator intended his or her actions and will therefore remain unrepentant.

To investigate, Adams and Inesi asked 179 participants (two thirds women, average age 27) to record, over five days, every time that they had been involved in an incident where one person upset another. The participants rated their perception of how intentional each of these acts was and how guilty the perpetrator felt. Participants perceived more intention and less guilt for acts where they were on the receiving end, than when they were source of harm. The effect still held after controlling for how severe the incident was, and suggests that victims may be consistently underestimating the desire of perpetrators to make amends.

To avoid the risk that there were meaningful differences between events participants recalled as victims or perpetrators, the researchers then asked another set of participants to imagine the same minor transgression – a beloved coffee mug being knocked off a table by another party. When participants imagined they were the victimised mug owner, they perceived the transgression as more deliberate and the perpetrator as less interested in forgiveness, than when they imagined they were the table knocker. Analysis of these, and related experiments suggested that belief in intention was the driving force: the more you think the offending party meant it, the more you believe they have no interest in being forgiven.

A last experiment suggested that it’s possible to bring a victim’s perceptions more in line with the perpetrator’s simply by asking them to try to see things through the perpetrator’s eyes. One hundred and forty-one participants repeated the broken mug procedure, but some in the victim role were asked to empathise with the other party, to imagine what they were seeing and going through. There was no longer a significant gap between how these victims saw the perpetrator’s desire for forgiveness, and the perpetrator’s own perspective; empathising victims also saw significantly less intent in the act than victims who had not been asked to empathise.

These findings jibe with Tom Tate’s experience of returning to Pforzheim. After his visit, Tate said, “I wish that I’d gone to Germany earlier to relieve these people of their guilt. When someone comes with arms open to embrace you, you can’t feel enmity any more.” Indeed, research shows forgiveness can be a salve for everyone: forgivers report better physical health and wellbeing, the forgiven can fully acknowledge and move beyond their bad behaviour, and of course, relationships can be mended. So it’s beneficial to realise, as implied by the new findings, that apparent obstacles to reconciliation may well be illusory. But this isn’t to say that victims should be expected to always be ready to forgive. When the perpetrator truly doesn’t see themselves as requiring forgiveness, attempts at reconciliation may be fruitless – the victim always owes first to themselves, not to those who have harmed them.

Impediments to Forgiveness: Victim and Transgressor Attributions of Intent and Guilt

Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) is Contributing Writer at BPS Research Digest

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