With the 2024 U.S. presidential election around the corner, conversation regarding the mounting bipartisan polarization in the United States has increased. In fact, one study found that people’s disdain for the opposing party outweighs their love for their own party.

Three teen girls talking and smiling outside of school

Our tendency to separate ourselves into groups extends beyond politics, however.

Humans tend to show an in-group bias toward groups we identify with or see ourselves belonging to (“us”), while sometimes exhibiting prejudice and discrimination toward out-groups or people we view as fundamentally different (“them”). This can happen across lines of race, nationality, age, and more.

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What can we do to mitigate these tendencies, especially in the next generation of young people who are growing up in today’s political environment? A new study sheds light on two skills that may help: gratitude and forgiveness.

For the study, researchers surveyed 481 young teenagers in Colombia and Uruguay over three months.

To start, they surveyed adolescents about how grateful they were, through statements such as “I have so much in life to be thankful for,” as well as how forgiving they were (how much they tended to feel more positive and less negative and angry toward someone who wronged them).

Across three months, they also gave adolescents questionnaires about their prosocial behavior, or actions done voluntarily to benefit others. They asked about prosociality toward outgroups (including statements such as “I help people I do not know even if it is not easy for me” and “I voluntarily help my neighbors”) and toward ingroups (such as “I always listen to my friends when they talk about their problems” and “I help my family even if it is not easy for me”).

After completing the surveys, the adolescents were placed into three tiers based on their levels of prosocial behavior toward in-groups and out-groups, from low to high.

Who was high in prosocial behavior toward their in-group, the people like them? In Uruguay, it was teens who were more grateful; in Colombia, it was teens who had more positive emotions toward someone who hurt them (a dimension of forgiveness).

Toward out-groups, in both countries, teens with greater positive emotions toward someone who hurt them tended to be high in prosociality. In Uruguay only, this was also the case for teens who were more grateful. These differences may be due to a variety of factors, including the culture-specific political and religious environments of the two countries.

In general, girls and older children who took part in the study showed higher kindness and helpfulness overall than younger children and boys.

While this study shows that national issues may impact the ways in which gratitude could mitigate out-group tension, it suggests that forgiveness may play a role in helping individuals treat all people well, regardless of fundamental identity differences.

These results suggest that considering forgiveness in different situations, when we are ready, could potentially help us be more kind, caring, and helpful toward all sorts of people. In particular, helping children think about and cultivate forgiveness, when it feels right for them, may help foster this mindset early on.

While forgiveness clearly cannot solve every issue leading to toxic polarization in the United States today, by nurturing feelings of warmth toward all individuals, we may pave the way for a more inclusive and compassionate society.

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