The Forgiveness InstinctBy Michael E. McCullough | Spring 2008 | 3 comments
To understand the human potential for peace, we have to learn three simple truths about forgiveness and revenge.
Early on the morning of October, 26, 2001, 25-year-old Chante Mallard was driving home along Interstate 820, just southeast of Fort Worth, Texas, after a long night of partying. Fatigue, combined with the many substances in her bloodstream—alcohol, marijuana, ecstasy—had impaired her judgment and slowed her reaction time. As she rounded the horseshoe-shaped curve to merge onto Route 287, Mallard drove her car straight into a man who had been walking along the dark highway. Gregory Biggs, 37 years old, was catapulted onto the hood of Mallard’s car. His head and upper body went crashing through the windshield and landed on the passenger side floorboard. His legs remained trapped inside the windshield.
With all of the drugs and the noise and the broken glass, Mallard was so disoriented at first that she didn’t even know that a human being was stuck in her windshield. When she realized what had happened, she stopped the car, got out, and went around to try and help. But as soon as she touched Biggs’s leg, she panicked. In her drug-addled state, she couldn’t figure out what to do next. So with Biggs still immobilized in the windshield, she drove the final mile back to her house, pulled into the garage, and closed the garage door behind her. Mallard let Biggs bleed to death right there in the garage. Over and over, Biggs begged Mallard to help him, but Mallard, a nurse’s aide, insisted there was nothing she could do for him. So she left him to die. Medical examiners would later testify that Biggs would surely have survived the crash had he received prompt medical attention.
The next night, Mallard and two friends dumped Biggs’s body in a nearby park. An informant told police that she had joked about the event later.
It was several months before the police received the tip that would lead them to Mallard. After her arrest, Mallard was tried and convicted of murder. She was sentenced to 50 years in prison. At her sentencing hearing, Biggs’s son Brandon had the opportunity to make a victim impact statement. Instead of using this opportunity to request the harshest possible sentence, Brandon said to the court and to Mallard’s family, “There’s no winners in a case like this. Just as we all lost Greg, you all will be losing your daughter.” Later, Brandon would go on to say, “I still want to extend my forgiveness to Chante Mallard and let her know that the Mallard family is in my prayers.”
An act of forgiveness like this is astonishing, but Brandon Biggs is hardly unique. In more than a decade of researching forgiveness, I’ve come across hundreds of stories like Brandon’s—acts of forgiveness for transgressions small and large. Over and over, I’ve been amazed by stories of people who seem to transcend the natural urge for revenge and, instead, find a way to forgive.
But for every one of those stories, you could probably counter with an equally astonishing story of vengeance. I also know these stories well: The grieving father who murders the air traffic controller he blames for his family’s death. The disenfranchised loner who, feeling abused by the system, takes a giant bulldozer, converts it into an assault vehicle, then razes the homes and workplaces of people who have caused him pain. The men whose desire for vengeance against what they view as an unjust foreign occupation leads them to capture westerners, behead them, and incinerate their bodies for the world to see.
In light of these outrageous, often tragic stories of revenge, you might be tempted to assume that people like Brandon Biggs possess some special trait that enables them to bypass the desire for vengeance. At the same time, it may seem that people who act on those urges for revenge are somehow defective, sick, or morally misshapen.
Both of those assumptions are wrong. My research on forgiveness has led me to this unsettling conclusion: The desire for revenge isn’t a disease that afflicts a few unfortunate people; rather it’s a universal trait of human nature, crafted by natural selection, that exists today because it helped our ancestors adapt to their environment.
But there’s some good news, too. Evolutionary science leads us squarely to the conclusion that the capacity for forgiveness, like the desire for revenge, is also an intrinsic feature of human nature, crafted by natural selection. Because revenge and forgiveness both solved problems for ancestral humans, these capacities are now typical of modern humans.
If the capacity to forgive and the desire for revenge really are standard-issue human social instincts, then there’s a hopeful possibility waiting in the wings: That we can make the world a less vengeful, more forgiving place, even when we’re forced to work with a fixed human nature. How do we do that? By making our social environments less abundant in the factors that elicit the desire for revenge, and more abundant in the factors that elicit forgiveness. In other words, to increase forgiveness in the world, it doesn’t make sense to try to change human nature. It makes a lot more sense to try to change the world around you.
But to do that, we need to make sure that we’re seeing human nature for what it really is. Consider these three simple truths about forgiveness and revenge and their place in human nature.
Truth #1: The Desire for Revenge is a built-in Feature of Human nature
A century of research in the social and biological sciences reveals a crucial truth: Though we might wish it were otherwise, the desire for revenge is normal—normal in the sense that every neurologically intact human being on the planet has the biological hardware for it.
When evolutionary biologists Martin Daly and Margo Wilson looked at data on 60 different societies from around the world, they tried to determine how many of those societies showed evidence of blood feuds, capital punishment, or the desire for blood revenge. They found that 57 of the 60 societies they examined—95 percent—had “some reference to blood feud or capital punishment as an institutionalized practice, or specific accounts of particular cases or, at the least, some articulate expression of the desire for blood revenge.”
“What our survey suggests,” Daly and Wilson write in their book Homicide, “is that the inclination to blood revenge is experienced by people in all cultures, and that the act is therefore unlikely to be altogether ‘absent’ anywhere.”
When a behavior is this universal, that suggests it’s not just the product of particular cultures or social factors. Instead, it’s essential to what it means to be human.
There are three very good reasons why revenge might have evolved in humans. First, revenge may have deterred would-be aggressors from committing acts of aggression against our ancestors. Ancestral humans were group-living creatures who lived, worked, and ate in the presence of others. Thus the outcomes of their aggressive encounters with other individuals quickly became public knowledge. If our ancestors saw that someone didn’t seek revenge after being harmed, they may have concluded that he was an easy mark, then tried to take advantage of him themselves.
Research suggests that these social dynamics still play out today. Social psychologists have shown in the laboratory that a victim will retaliate more strongly against his or her provoker when an audience has witnessed the provocation, especially if the audience lets the victim know that he or she looks weak because of the abuse he or she suffered. In fact, when people find out that bystanders think less of them because of the harm they’ve endured, they’ll actually go out of their way—even at substantial cost to themselves—to retaliate against their provokers. Moreover, when two men have an argument on the street, the mere presence of a third person doubles the likelihood that the encounter will escalate from an exchange of words to an exchange of blows.
Second, when ancestral humans were harmed by others, the propensity for revenge may have helped them deter the aggressors from harming them again. In highly mobile modern societies such as ours, often we can simply end relationships in which we’ve been betrayed. But in the close societies in which our earliest hominid ancestors lived, moving away usually wasn’t a good option. In fact, ostracism from the group was often a severe punishment that carried the risk of death. Therefore, our ancestors often had to find more direct ways to cope with the despots and bullies in their midst. One way to cope with someone who has taken advantage of you is to make it less profitable for that person to do so again.
This punishment function of revenge is quite prevalent in many animal societies. For example, if a rhesus macaque monkey finds a source of a highly valued food but doesn’t issue one of the “food calls” used to alert others to the big discovery, the animal is likely to be attacked when others realize what he’s done. In a scenario like this, you can almost see the evolutionary logic at work: If you don’t want to share your food with us, then we’re going to make it less profitable for you to try and be sneaky about it. In this way, revenge may have evolved because of its ability to teach our aggressors that crime doesn’t pay.
Finally, revenge may have been useful for punishing (and reforming) “free riders,” people who enjoy the benefits of a group’s efforts without contributing to those efforts. To spur humans’ prodigious tendencies for cooperation, our ancestors had to ensure that when free riders failed to “pitch in” and make appropriate contributions to the common good, they suffered dire consequences.
With these adaptive functions in mind, it gets easier to accept the idea that revenge is a built-in feature of human nature, despite its dreadful effects in the world today. We might rightly view revenge as a modern-day problem, but from an evolutionary point of view, it’s also an age-old solution.
Truth #2: The Capacity for Forgiveness is a built-in Feature of Human nature
So revenge is an authentic, standard-issue, bred-in-the- bone feature of human nature. But that doesn’t imply that forgiveness is a thin veneer of civility, slapped on top of a brutish, vengeful core. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, when you use the conceptual tools of evolutionary science, you can’t help but conclude that our capacity for forgiveness is every bit as authentic as our capacity for revenge.
For example, there’s evidence that forgiveness is just as universal among humans as revenge is. Although Martin Daly and Margo Wilson found that blood revenge has emerged as an important social phenomenon in 95 percent of the societies they examined, my own analysis revealed that the concepts of forgiveness, reconciliation, or both have been documented in 93 percent of those same societies.
Is it possible that forgiveness and reconciliation really didn’t exist among that remaining seven percent? The evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson has observed that “it is actually difficult to find descriptions of forgiveness in hunter-gatherer societies, not because forgiveness is absent but because it happens so naturally that it often goes unnoticed.” I think Wilson may be correct, and not just about hunter-gatherers but about all societies. Forgiveness and reconciliation may be so common and so taken for granted by anthropologists as to be regarded, quite literally, as nothing to write home about.
And just as with revenge, research has found that forgiveness is also widespread across the animal kingdom, offering further evidence of its evolutionary significance. More than two decades ago, primatologist Frans de Waal and a colleague published results showing that friendly behaviors such as kissing, submissive vocal sounds, touching, and embracing were actually quite common after chimpanzees’ aggressive conflicts. In fact, these were the chimpanzees’ typical responses to aggressive conflicts. The researchers observed 350 aggressive encounters and found that only 50, or 14 percent, of those encounters were preceded by some sort of friendly contact. However, 179, or 51 percent, of the aggressive encounters were followed by friendly contact. This was a staggering discovery: Friendly contact was even more common after conflict than it was during conflict-free periods. Chimps kiss and make up in the same way people do.
Chimpanzees aren’t the slightest bit unique in this respect. Other great apes, such as the bonobo and the mountain gorilla, also reconcile. And it gets more interesting still, for reconciliation isn’t even limited to primates. Goats, sheep, dolphins, and hyenas all tend to reconcile after conflicts (rubbing horns, flippers, and fur are common elements of these species’ conciliatory gestures). Of the half-dozen or so non-primates that have been studied, only domestic cats have failed to demonstrate a conciliatory tendency. (If you own a cat, this probably comes as no surprise).
So why might animals (humans included) be so willing to forgive and reconcile? Why might evolution have outfitted us with such an ability? Biologists have offered several hypotheses. I’m especially fond of the “valuable relationship” hypothesis, espoused by de Waal and many other primatologists. It goes like this: Animals reconcile because it repairs important relationships that have been damaged by aggression. By forgiving and repairing relationships, our ancestors were in a better position to glean the benefits of cooperation between group members—which, in turn, increased their evolutionary fitness.
Research with seven pairs of female long-tailed macaques offers perhaps the most striking evidence of how the value of a relationship affects whether a conflict will be reconciled. In the first phase of their experiment, researchers Marina Cords and Sylvie Thurnheer simply examined how often these seven pairs of individuals reconciled. Averaging across the seven pairs, about 25 percent of their conflicts got reconciled. In phase two, the seven pairs were trained to cooperate with each other in order to get food. If one partner wanted to eat, she had to wait until the other one wanted to eat. Then they could work together to gain access to the food. No cooperation, no food. In other words, the researchers used experimental methods to turn the macaques’ relationships into valuable relationships. After they had been trained to work together in order to obtain food, the average rate of reconciliation doubled to about 50 percent. When group-living animals are given the choice between (a) reconciling with a valuable partner who has harmed them, or (b) holding on to their grudges but going hungry, they generally choose the reconciled relationship and the full belly.
Needless to say, even if natural selection has caused forgiveness and reconciliation to become universal features of human nature, that doesn’t imply that these behaviors are universally practiced in the same way or with the same frequency. There are cultural differences in what people are willing to forgive and how they go about doing it. However, it seems a safe bet that, under the right social conditions, most people will be motivated to take the time and trouble to forgive. So what are those social conditions that can help promote forgiveness?
Truth #3: To Make the World a More Forgiving, less Vengeful Place, Don’t Try to Change Human nature—Change the World!
Human nature is what it is: The outcome of billions of years of biological evolution, the details of which are managed by a genetic cookbook. In other words, it’s pretty well locked in.
But it’s also exquisitely sensitive to context. Human nature ensures that people are capable of a wide range of behaviors; the behaviors we actually express depend on our changing circumstances.
This is especially true for forgiveness and revenge. They both emerged as adaptive solutions to problems that humans persistently encountered during evolution, and people still encounter many of those problems today. When people live in places where crime and disorder are high, policing is poor, governments are weak, and life is dangerous, they will tend to use revenge as a problem-solving strategy. They’ll do so because revenge’s ability to punish aggressors, its ability to deter would-be aggressors, and its ability to discourage cheaters made it adaptive in our ancestral environment.
Likewise, we’ll see higher rates of forgiveness under those conditions that made forgiving adaptive in our ancestral environments. This means we’ll see more forgiveness in places where people are highly dependent on complex networks of cooperative relationships, policing is reliable, the system of justice is efficient and trustworthy, and social institutions are up to the task of helping truly contrite offenders make amends with the people they’ve harmed.
Cultural changes can also produce changes in revenge and forgiveness even when we can’t change social and environmental factors directly. This is because culture’s function, as far as forgiveness and revenge are concerned, is to help people learn rules about when it’s appropriate to forgive and when it’s appropriate to seek revenge. Indeed, research with other primates has shown that the propensity to forgive can be shaped heavily by one’s cultural experiences. Separate infant monkeys from their mothers, and they’ll grow up to be less conciliatory than is typical for their species. Raise them among individuals from a more conciliatory species, and they’ll become more conciliatory than is typical.
Because we are cultural learners, we can learn valuable lessons about where and when to seek revenge, and about where and when to forgive, simply by observing our parents, siblings, friends, associates, teachers, and mentors. We also learn culturally through religious teachings, myths, traditions, the arts, advertisements, items in the news, and other formal vehicles for transmitting cultural lessons. The informal codes that govern people’s social behavior in many U.S. inner cities, for example, convey reams of revenge-promoting cultural information. Likewise, the Amish are fed a steady diet of pro-forgiveness religious teachings and other cultural inputs that make them into the superforgivers they are. Most of us are in between the two extremes, raised on a diet of mixed cultural inputs, some of which promote revenge, and others of which encourage forgiveness.
In certain cases, we can see macro-level cultural changes developing to make the world a more forgiving place. One of those changes has taken shape over the past decade. Few people knew very much about the idea of a “truth and reconciliation commission” before the early-to mid-1990s, when El Salvador and South Africa put commissions in place to investigate human rights abuses during civil war (in the case of El Salvador) and apartheid (in the case of South Africa). Since then, the truth and reconciliation commission idea has been disseminated worldwide, and many people who’ve learned about it have helped establish similar commissions within their own nations—often to great effect. The United States Institute of Peace documents more than 20 nations that have used truth and reconciliation commissions following civil war. This is cultural learning at its finest, and on a truly global scale.
If the hundreds of scientific articles on human forgiveness—coupled with decades of work from evolutionary biology, primatology, and anthropology—show us anything, it’s that forgiveness is easier to achieve when we presume that natural selection has endowed the human mind with a “forgiveness instinct.” In that light, forgiveness is not an elusive or mystical force but, rather, a skill that the mind already possesses. Making the world a more forgiving place, then, does not require that we make miracles happen. It just requires that we learn to use a tool that’s already well within humanity’s reach.
About The Author
Michael E. McCullough, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at the University of Miami, where he directs the Laboratory for Social and Clinical Psychology. His essay is excerpted with permission of the publisher John Wiley & Sons, Inc., from Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct. Copyright © 2008 by Michael E. McCullough.