Where does forgiveness come from?

I read this devotional yesterday about how women in the Ravensbruk Nazi concentration camp were able to forgive their oppressors:

which also brought to mind this story from late last year about how Botham Jean’s younger brother, Brant, was able to forgive the off-duty police officer, Amber Guyger for killing his brother:

and also the story about how survivors and family members of victims of the Charleston church shooting could forgive the shooter:

These stories lead me to ask: Where does this type of forgiveness come from?
This level of love and forgiveness seems supernatural to me, and is reminiscent of the type of love and forgiveness we see from God with Jesus on the Cross. However, I realize that my views on this topic are strongly influenced by my faith, since I became a believing Christian about 20 years ago.

Thus, I would like to hear other thoughts and perspectives on this question. I know that there are discussions about why humans might have evolved the characteristic of altruism. However, the ability to forgive is different than altruism. Do psychologists and evolutionary biologists also have theories about the evolution of forgiveness? Would there be naturalistic explanations for humans having the ability to forgive?


Google tells me there is at least one example.

[Edit to show lined article]

If I speculate about Group Selection, then the capacity to welcome a member back into the community after some transgression might be a necessity. Otherwise the group could be whittled down to zero through a series of escalating transgressions (ie: Hatfields and McCoys), and that still happens anyway…


Another one from neuroscience:

And one from an evolutionar perspective:

Something from a Christian perspective:

And from Neurobiology:

I’m not usually much for evo-psych. But I think the big issue here is simply that there’s no operational definition for forgiveness. All you can do is ask people whether they forgive someone, and it’s not terribly clear what that actually means. I suppose, at the extreme, that it means “I will not hunt you down and kill you out of revenge,” but in most cases people aren’t going to do that anyhow.

My sense of it is that forgiveness, at least in this sense, is not a transaction with the person forgiven – it is just a way of internally processing the wrongs that have been done to you. It is an adjustment to the fact that justice won’t be done, and a kind of subjective acceptance of that. Or – in cases where some sort of justice is done (and note: in such cases the victim seldom asks that it not be done) it is an adjustment to the fact that the justice that gets done is retributive rather than restorative – someone who’s been killed isn’t coming back.

So, what does it mean? I think it just means that people are trying to calm themselves. Having had some harrowing experience, they are trying to put to rest the way in which it follows them. Telling themselves that they “forgive” is a way of helping convince themselves that they can sort of close the door on it and move on. No supernatural forces needed – just one of the funny ways cognition works.


I wonder what might make some people more capable of forgiveness than others. A lot of people prefer to harbor grudges, whereas others prefer to forgive. Is that just a difference in personalities?

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These people may be more predispostioned for aggression.

Are you defining it in the broad sense? Such as evo psych incorporating multiple fields such as human behavioral ecology, behavioral genetics, developmental psych, cultural evolution, and evolutionary anthropology. Or are you defining it in its narrow sense such as the field developed by Toobey and Cosmides?

I’d say it’s mostly learned behavior (nurture not nature), and it is very difficult to unlearn. YMMV

In many cases, probably so.

I certainly can see how life experience can bring one to realize that harboring grudges mainly harms the grudge-bearer. Even chronic high blood pressure and stress eating can take a toll when one dwells on past injuries. I’ve sometimes been amazed how some people are willing to bring even more grief upon themselves by obsessing on hurts while others move on. (I don’t say that condescendingly. Some people may have “brain wiring” and biochemistry which keeps the wounds fresher. Just as a PTSD sufferer can’t simply resolve to move on, the grudge-bearer may find it difficult to forgive-and-forget.)

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Well, you know, it does seem to me that people differ considerably in their responses to anger. Some people have a hair-trigger and, by gum, you do not want to be in the way when it gets set off. Others are more deliberative.

But I sort of think that a large component in this is simply the lack of access to a productive outlet. Once one knows the futility of any response, one comes to terms with it. And this can happen with or without some intervening form of justice – it may be right that the murderer goes to jail, but it won’t bring back a friend whom he killed. Futility blunts our response, and even where we would react with, say, retributive violence, we can’t. So, what to do? Rage forever? I think that emotional exhaustion is often the consequence of that sort of thing, and people start to understand that this is not healthy for them.

Not really defining it at all. It was sort of an offhand remark, and I cannot say that I have devoted much time to following different threads and approaches to it, and now that psychology and neurology are starting to converge, it may be that everything I once thought I knew about it is wrong…

Often depends who did the wrong, and who is used to having wrongs against them. Restorative justice requires both remembering and forgiveness. Usually we want one or the other, depending on what suites us best.

You don’t need group selection for that. It could easily be advantageous to the individual to forgive some transgressions if the forgiven individual contributes something to the forgiver, including to the group the forgiver belongs to.

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