17 Things We Know About Forgiveness

There is, according to the research, no such thing as an unforgivable offense. 

The offense-apology-forgiveness cycle is a draining, regimented ritual for public figures. Just in the past few weeks, Benedict Cumberbatch made an ill-conceived comment about race, referring to black actors as “colored”; apologized; and was (mostly) forgiven. Then there’s Brian Williams, and others with such charged pasts that new offenses and new apologies hardly seem to move the dial at all, like when Kanye West “upstaged” Beck at the Grammys. Below, our best grab bag of insights from social science about forgiveness theater.

1.The scientific literature on forgiveness only dates back to 1989, amazingly. But some researchers suggest we’re seeing more examples of public figures seeking forgiveness lately because we’re becoming more aware of the importance of seeking reconciliation.

2. Cats never forgive. Scientists have observed conciliatory behavior in many different animal species; the bulk of the research has been on primates like bonobos, mountain gorillas, and chimps, who often follow confrontations with friendly behavior like embracing or kissing. Scientists have observed similar behaviors in non-primates like goats and hyenas; the only species that has so far failed to show outward signs of reconciliation are domestic cats.

3. Humans are less likely to forgive public figures than loved ones. With personal forgiveness, the resentment we feel is usually going to weigh more heavily on us, says sociologist Everett Worthington — but this actually motivates us to reconcile.

4. Also, it’s harder to believe public figures’ apologies. We have history with a loved one who’s harmed us, Worthington says, so we can judge the sincerity of their contrition. With a celebrity or politician, it’s less clear.

5. No offense is unforgivable. “I have never found a particular injustice in the world that I don’t know of at least one person who’s forgiven the people who have perpetrated it,” says Robert Enright, a psychologist who pioneered the study of forgiveness. It’s more accurate to say that there are particular people who are more or less forgiving.

6. But betrayal does work a little differently. According to a study from 2010, the most common type of unforgiven offense is betrayal, including affairs, deceit, broken promises, and broken secrets.

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