For better or worse, our minds are hardwired to forgive people

We may have a dossier of evidence against a coworker’s slights and insults against us, but even with the mounting evidence, a part of us still wants to give them one more chance. Why do we keep giving people who have wronged us the benefit of the doubt? A new study in Nature Human Behavior suggests that we are hardwired to forgive people.

We are predisposed towards forgiveness

Across a series of experiments with more than 1500 subjects, psychologists at Yale, University of Oxford, University College London, and the International School for Advanced Studies got participants to watch “good” and “bad” agents act out moral dilemmas: in one, they faced the option of electrically shocking a person for more money, or refusing to inflict pain for money. The “good” stranger would be more likely to refuse while the “bad” stranger was more willing to zap away, and the participants then had to decide their overall impression of the stranger from a range of nasty to nice.

The observers quickly formed a stable positive impression about the “good” strangers and were very certain about their choice, but the bad stranger upended their beliefs and caused more uncertainty. The participants were less likely to believe the stranger was forever bad, and at a hint of generous behavior, they would change their mind.

The researchers suggest that we are more wishy-washy around bad behavior because we know that a rigid mindset would not be good for cooperation: “negative moral impressions destabilize beliefs about others, promoting cognitive flexibility in the service of cooperative but cautious behavior,” the study stated. When our colleagues act badly, we see it as a potentially threatening cue that increases our attention and learning mechanisms. We become more open to updating our information, and this facilitates forgiveness — if the person is willing to change their behavior.

The brain forms social impressions in a way that can enable forgiveness,” Molly Crockett, one of the authors of the paper, said. “Because people sometimes behave badly by accident, we need to be able to update bad impressions that turn out to be mistaken. Otherwise, we might end relationships prematurely and miss out on the many benefits of social connection.”

The good news is that if you make a bad first impression, you can recover from it by showing your colleagues your better side. Ultimately we seek human connection and are willing to overlook a bad outing if you show a commitment to improving yourself.