Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science

Living Edition
| Editors: Todd K. Shackelford, Viviana A. Weekes-Shackelford

Be Forgiving

  • Quésia F. CataldoEmail author
  • Roger S. Sousa
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-16999-6_1226-1



Forgiveness mechanisms are designed to solve problems connected to preserving valued relationships in spite of previous damages. To be forgiving is to be able to change the motivation and emotional states towards someone who has harmed us, leaving behind a disposition for revenge with negative states of mind, for overcoming of animosities with positive states of mind.


Forgiveness is an inbuilt human nature resource and a standard human social instinct (McCullough 2008). Forgiveness is defined as a prosocial change in relation to a transgressor in spite of his harmful attitudes (McCullough et al. 2000). In general, being forgiving is associated with relational, emotional, and physical well-being (McCullough 2008).

The literature indicates several elements as related to forgiveness, among which are the personality of the individual, specific elements of the individual who has done something wrong, the relationship between the offender and the victim, as well as other socio-cognitive aspects (Billingsley and Losin 2017; McCullough 2008). These combined elements influence the individual to experience forgiveness as a set of motivational changes that has a positive effect. As a result of forgiveness, individuals feel less motivated to take revenge on the aggressor, as well as less motivated to be displeased with them; these motivational changes are increased by the goodwill of the aggressor (Karremans and Van Lange 2004).

Thus, forgiveness is considered to be an internal process of overcoming animosities and negative emotions, replacing them with positive states, which enable the reparation of the relationship with the aggressor (McCullough 2008). In this context, reconciliation may be understood as one of the more basic consequences of forgiveness, seen as it aids in the maintenance of the social structure (Billingsley and Losin 2017; Strang 2002). By preserving relationships, the benefits of group life are maintained, ensuring survival and development.

Thus, it is necessary to understand how evolution selected forgiveness from its adaptive mechanisms. The evolutionary functions of forgiveness aid in comprehending the context in which this action was selected, how and why. In addition, there are ways to perceive different types of forgiveness in each culture. This way, to identify forgiving individuals it is also necessary to understand the factors that enable human beings to forgive.

Evolutionary Functions of Forgiveness

According to McCullough (2008), in his book “Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct,” there are two functions over which the ability to forgive was naturally selected. The first refers to the ability to help ancestral humans to live well with their genetic relatives; the second refers to the ability to help ancestral humans establish and maintain cooperative relationships with nonrelatives. However, it is important to point out that the human ability to forgive only exists under specific circumstances.

Initially, it is understood that severe retaliations and revenges against genetic relatives, such as killing brothers, sisters, and children, decreased inclusive fitness. So, the function of forgiveness to promote good coexistence with relatives was probably selected as a solution to some problems, such as avoiding that genes be decimated by reducing the relatives’ aptitude. Thus, forgiveness allowed that alliances between groups were developed and maintained.

The second function of forgiveness may have evolved from the need of cooperation between nonrelatives. In the Prisoner’s dilemma (Axelrod 1997), one of the more efficient strategies is Tit-for-tat, a primordially cooperative strategy, but that retaliates and forgives. Being forgiving in this situation may be beneficial because, if, after deserting, your partner starts cooperating again, you instantly cooperate with him, showing you are willing to be in an alliance again. Cooperation results in higher payoffs than desertion. The studies about strategies that followed found that a few unexpected situations happened in cooperation and other strategies became more adaptive; however, detailing them is not important at the moment. In any case, the common ground is that organisms that survived the selective process had forgiveness as an adaptive skill.

Thus, forgiveness was selected with the function of developing and maintaining alliances between relatives and nonrelatives, motivating them to return to cooperation by restoring the relationship that may have been broken by some desertion or conflict. Forgiveness may have evolved to help organisms in promoting and adapting their genetic relatives and in cooperating with nonrelatives. Therefore, the main adaptive function of forgiveness seems to be to help individuals preserve their valuable relationships (McCullough et al. 1997). However, even though humans have developed mechanisms to forgive, being forgiving is more likely to happen among cooperative partners, that is, to members of the small groups of people closest to them. In fact, forgiveness helps preserve the relationships that are most valuable, from family, partners, and close friends where there is the key element of trust (Kurzban 2003, McCullough 2008).

Be Forgiving

Nonhuman animals, such as chimpanzees, often engage in friendly behavior such as kissing, touching, and hugging after aggressive conflicts (de Waal and van Roosmalen 1979). Although reconciliation and forgiveness are not exactly the same thing, the greatest goal of forgiveness and its greatest effect is reconciliation (Karremans and Van Lange 2004). However, forgiveness is a conditional adaptation; despite having the capacity, forgiveness will only happen under certain circumstances (McCullough 2008). Thus, there are three main conditions that activate forgiveness, which will be briefly exposed below.

The first is careworthiness: to be forgiving of transgressors who are seen as appropriate targets for kindness and compassion. Getting involved with others demands physical and psychological energy, so the targets of greater care and forgiveness will be genetic relatives. Forgiveness is based on the same mechanisms that generate care (McCullough et al. 1997, 1998). With regard to forgiveness directed toward individuals not close to us, empathy plays a fundamental role in promoting forgiveness (Batson and Ahmad 2001; Giancola 2003).

The second condition is the expected value of a relationship, where forgiveness is more likely when the victim realizes that the relationship with the offender is valued. In relationships where there is a high expected value before transgression, being forgiving is more likely because the threat of losing a valued relationship motivates finding ways to restore that bond. The prediction of future positive and valuable interactions with the transgressor also influences the willingness to forgive (McCullough 2008).

The third condition to be forgiving is perceived security, that is, people are more inclined to forgive those who are not willing or able to harm again in the future. People are more likely to forgive someone who behaved unintentionally or unconsciously than willful and malicious transgressions (Strang 2002). Therefore, under such circumstances, it is possible to activate the mechanisms of forgiveness, socially identified with some signs such as apologies, gestures, and self-abasing displays and compensative behaviors.


As stated earlier, forgiveness can be defined as a prosocial change of attitude towards someone who has committed some kind of emotional or physical harm (McCullough 2008). Among the functions attributed to forgiveness is the aid in developing relationships with peers, with or without blood ties, in a cooperative way (de Waal and van Roosmalen 1979). At more complex levels of analysis, forgiveness has allowed the development and maintenance of alliances, especially in situations where one party violates explicit or implicit social norms (Billingsley and Losin 2017).

Thus, forgiving individuals are those who perceive offenders as worthy of care under certain circumstances, for being valuable to the victim. In this way, individuals who seek forgiveness try to awaken these psychological conditions in people, by apologizing, engaging in self-abasing displays, in addition to trying to compensate the victim (McCullough 2008).



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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversidade Federal do CearáFortalezaBrazil
  2. 2.Universidade Federal do CearáFortalezaBrazil

Section editors and affiliations

  • Todd K. Shackelford
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyOakland UniversityRochesterUSA