Offenders feel like victims when their victims don’t forgive them

By Emily Reynolds

Forgiveness is not always easy. Forgiving someone who has wronged you can lead to a decreased likelihood of repeat offending and increased likelihood that the perpetrator will engage in conciliatory behaviour — just some of the reasons restorative justice has become more popular. But victims of transgressions often find it hard to move on.

A study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin looks at what happens when victims don’t forgive and forget — and specifically how this makes offenders feel. The team finds that, if not offered forgiveness, those who have committed transgressions end up feeling like victims too.

In the first study, Michael Thai from The University of Queensland and colleagues asked participants to recall a situation in which they had wronged somebody and had subsequently given a sincere apology. Half of the participants were asked to recall a situation in which they were forgiven, and the other half a situation in which they weren’t.

All participants described the situation in writing, before indicating how much their victim’s response constituted a violation of norms; how much it threatened their sense of power, control, and dignity; how much they felt like a victim in the situation; how much they regretted their apology; and how willing they were to reconcile with the person to whom they had given the apology.

Those who were not forgiven saw the victim’s response as a greater violation of norms than those who had been forgiven. They also saw this response as a greater threat to their sense of power. As a result, these participants also felt more like victims themselves than those who had been forgiven, and this made them less willing to reconcile and to feel more regret about making the apology.

This pattern of results was replicated in a second study. This time, participants read a scenario in which they had let down a fellow student and had to write a letter of apology, receiving either a response that expressed forgiveness or was non-forgiving.

The third study looked at neutral or ambiguous responses alongside forgiveness and non-forgiveness. As in study two, participants were asked to imagine that they had wronged somebody and wrote a message to this person to apologise. Some participants received a reply forgiving them; some not forgiving them; and some containing a more ambivalent statement where forgiveness was not clear.

Non-forgiveness, again, was more likely to be seen as a violation of norms, reduced the likelihood of reconciliation, impacted on power and control, and made participants feel like victims, compared to both a forgiving response and a more ambiguous one. Those who saw ambiguous replies did not feel like victims and did not see any norm violation compared to those who were forgiven, suggesting that a lack of forgiveness isn’t quite the same as explicitly refusing to forgive someone. However, people who read an ambiguous reply did still feel less power and control. The team suggests that an apology “puts power back in the hands of victims” — they can choose whether to forgive or bear a grudge, representing a loss of control for offenders that is only regained once forgiveness has been granted overtly.

So, overall, not being forgiven for a transgression was seen as a violation of norms, a threat to power and control, leading to a sense of oneself as the victim of the situation. This also led to poorer outcomes — a smaller likelihood of reconciliation, for example. This could be useful information when considering restorative or transformative justice — if a victim is unlikely to forgive a perpetrator, then the process may not work as hoped, or other strategies may need to be exercised to mitigate chances of non-reconciliation.

The team points to previous research that suggests victims are often socially pressured into accepting apologies; future work could look at the motivations behind non-forgiveness. Non-forgiveness presumably has a relationship to severity of transgression — if someone’s forgotten to text you back and you don’t forgive them, there’s probably more at play than not forgiving someone for greater wrongdoing. There are also more nuanced examples of victim-transgressor relationships: dynamics where both parties have, across the course of their relationship, played both roles. These, too, are worth exploring.

Turning Tables: Offenders Feel Like “Victims” When Victims Withhold Forgiveness

Emily Reynolds is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest