The power of making amends: How conciliatory gestures promote forgiveness

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.”

For the study, 356 young men and women completed questionnaires, as well as an 8-minute interview about the transgression they had experienced and their feelings toward the person who had harmed them.

The participants also spent four minutes preparing a short, first-person speech about the transgression and the transgressor; they then delivered the speech into a video camera, as if the camera were the person who had harmed them.

Finally, the participants completed a 21-day online survey to measure forgiveness. To describe their feelings about their aggressors, respondents chose from a list of statements such as “I’m trying to keep as much distance between us as possible,” “I’m going to get even,” “he/she wants our conflict to be over,” and “he/she does not intend to wrong me again,” among others.

“It’s one of the largest, longest, and, we think, most definitive studies of the effects of conciliatory gestures on human conflict resolution ever conducted,” McCullough said.

The findings show that the extent to which a transgressor offered conciliatory gestures to their victims was directly proportional to the extent to which those victims forgave over time. Conciliatory gestures also appeared to change the victim’s perceptions about the relationship and the aggressor.

One basic scientific implication of the results is that humans have a psychology for conflict resolution that is very much analogous to the psychology that other non-human group-living animals have for restoring valuable relationships.

“Many group-living vertebrates, but particularly mammals, seem to use ‘conciliatory gestures’ as signals of their desire to end conflict and restore cooperative relationships with other individuals after aggressive conflict has occurred,” McCullough said. “We seem to have a similar psychology as well.”

The study, “Conciliatory gestures promote human forgiveness and reduce anger,” is now published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Other authors are Eric J. Pedersen; from UM’s Department of Psychology; Evan Carter, from University of Minnesota, and Benjamin A. Tabak from University of California, Los Angeles. All the co-authors were graduate students at UM’s Department of Psychology at the time the work was conducted.

The next step for the researchers is to conduct experimental work. If the apparent associations of conciliatory gestures with more forgiveness and perceived relationship value (as well as with less anger and perceived exploitation risk) really are cause-and-effect relationships, it should be possible to make people more forgiving in the laboratory through apologies, offers of compensation and other conciliatory gestures. The researchers would also like to see if it’s possible to build “cultures of forgiveness” by experimentally building up relationship value and reducing the risks of interactions with anonymous strangers who are interacting within groups.

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3 thoughts on “The power of making amends: How conciliatory gestures promote forgiveness”

  1. Hi John Doe,

    Thanks for your comment. By the way, Is that your real name? Sorry that it took me over two years to respond. I just noticed your post today. But I need to straighten out of a few things in your understanding. It seems you have it exactly backward. Jesus was teaching these values in documents that archeologists have dated in the first century AD. So these values have not been “evolving for many centuries.” Nor did mankind “invent God and his book” rather God invented You and prescribed how you should live in His book, His revelation to you. Though you continue to mock Him and His precious revelation to you, He continues to extend forgiveness and Love to you and to all people on earth, if you will but turn unto Him and be saved. He sent his own Son to die in our place for the forgiveness of our sins. God’s revelation is all about His Love and Mercy. Natural Selection is all about kill or be killed. Dominate or be dominated. There is no Love and Forgiveness in Natural Selection consistently applied. Think about that and I hope you find salvation in Christ alone.

  2. @Doug Fox:

    Yes, exactly. Religion has been an important step in humanities evolution.

    After many centuries, humans as social creatures, adopted methods like religion to pass along traditions and and certain values. One of these values being forgiveness. Something that just makes sense for a strong nit community to survive.

    So yes, the desert dwelling tribes that knew very little about the world and created your book of fairy tales had managed to evolve to the point, socially, to understand that it’s important to pass on the values of forgiveness. As a result, they invented your god and and your book of fairy tales in order to help their descendants through life.

  3. I had to laugh at the suggestion that “natural selection probably also gave us tools to help us restore important relationships after they have been damaged by conflict.”

    Natural selection is not what gave us the tools — God did. He provides us with lots of instruction in His revelation to us on how we are to do this. For example in the famous Lord’s Prayer we ask “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who have sinned against us.” In other words,” Lord make me a forgiving person because I know You have forgiven me millions of time.” And if I don’t forgive others, I should have no expectation of You forgiving me. Jesus tells a wonderful story about a guy who has the equivalent of a million dollar debt forgiven by his master and then he goes out and beats on a guy for a few bucks. He know this is our natural tendency, but He asks us to look at the larger picture and become people of forgiveness.

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