The Power of Mercy

Granting forgiveness for the wrongs done to us can be one of the hardest things we face in life. But forgiveness can also be transformative. In the first of a two-part series on apologies and mercy, we talk with psychologist Charlotte Witvliet about the benefits of forgiveness, for both the mind and the body.  

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Additional Resources

Research Studies: 

Apology and Restitution: Offender Accountability Responses Influence Victim Empathy and Forgiveness. Charlotte V. O. Witvliet, Nathaniel Wade, Everett Worthington, Lindseyt Root Luna, Daryl Van Tongeren, Jack Berry, and Jo-Ann Tsang. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 2020.

The Mandate of the Collective: Apology Representativeness Determines Perceived Sincerity and Forgiveness in Intergroup Contexts. Michael Wenzel, Tyler Okimoto, Matthew Hornsey, Ellie Lawrence-Wood, and Anne Marie Coughlin. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2017.

The Thorny Issue of Forgiveness: A Psychological Perspective. Julie Juloa Exline. Pepperdine Dispute Resolution Law Journal, 2013.

Compassionate reappraisal and emotion suppression as alternatives to offense-focused rumination: Implications for forgiveness and psychophysiological well-being. Charlotte V.O.  Witvliet, Alicia Hofelich and P. A. Deyoung. Journal of Positive Psychology, 2011.

The Dark Side of Forgiveness: The Tendency to Forgive Predicts Continued Psychological and Physical Aggression in Marriage. James McNulty. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2011.

Interpersonal consequences of forgiveness: Does forgiveness deter or encourage repeat offenders? Harry Wallace, Roy Baumeister, Julie Exline. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2008.

Granting Forgiveness or Harboring Grudges: Implications for Emotion, Physiology, and Health. Charlotte V. O. Witvliet , T E Ludwig, K L Vander Laan. Psychological Science, 2001.

The transcript below may be for an earlier version of this episode. Our transcripts are provided by various partners and may contain errors or deviate slightly from the audio.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Over the course of our lives, we all accrue a ledger of the wrongs done to us. For some of us, that ledger is long and detailed. We find ourselves poring over the pages again and again, accounting for each betrayal, tallying every injustice, adding up the petty cruelties. We sit with these wrongs done to us, and as time slides by, our anger festers instead of fading away.

Shankar Vedantam: This week on Hidden Brain, we begin a series on forgiveness and apologies. We'll consider why holding a grudge can feel bad and good at the same time. And we look at why the process of forgiveness can sometimes be a long struggle between head and heart.

Charlotte Witvliet: This journey has its own twists and turns, and there can be surprises. There can be times of incredible, effortful intentionality that feel almost fruitless, but there are other times where that persistence can all of a sudden be met with, like, an aha revelation, a gift.

Shankar Vedantam: Granting forgiveness for the wrongs done to us is one of the hardest things human beings can do. At Hope College in Michigan, psychologist Charlotte Witvliet studies the psychological barriers and effects of forgiveness. She and others have examined why forgiveness is hard and the transformative effects of forgiveness on both victims and transgressors. Charlotte Witvliet, welcome to Hidden Brain.

Charlotte Witvliet: Thank you, Shankar. It's a joy to be with you.

Shankar Vedantam: Charlotte, you're a researcher, but you also spend a lot of time in clinical settings, working with patients. What kind of hurts and traumas do people tell you that they are carrying around?

Charlotte Witvliet: It's so rare that someone has come into a clinical setting and not had some sort of deep interpersonal pain that felt unfair or unjust to them. There are all sorts of betrayals. There are betrayals from childhood, betrayals in friendship, in families, in romantic relationships, infidelities, having your reputation maligned. All sorts of hurts show up.

Shankar Vedantam: And some of us carry these hurts around for years, even decades, right?

Charlotte Witvliet: Oh yes. That's the powerful thing about memory. Something that happened in the past can be currently embodied. Something that happens this week can activate powerfully painful memories of something that happened 30 years ago.

Shankar Vedantam: Before we talk about the science of forgiveness and the effects of forgiveness, Charlotte, I want to talk a moment about the barriers to forgiveness, why forgiveness can be so hard. I want to play you a clip from the television show Frasier, where the title character, Frasier Crane is a radio host and psychotherapist. And he's trying to convince his father to bury the hatchet with an old friend who's in the hospital.

Kelsey Grammer, as Frasier Crane: Dad, we are talking about a few minutes out of your life, just long enough to sit there and have a little chat with a very sick man. I don't see why that's so impossible for you. Now, come on. Believe me. You'll be glad you did.

John Mahoney, as Martin Crane: Listen, sonny boy, that sanctimonious tone may wow them on the radio, but it doesn't cut any ice with me. When I say no, that's just what I mean. I'm not sitting and chatting with Artie Walsh.

Shankar Vedantam: Many of us have had the experience of feeling like Frasier Crane's father there, Charlotte. It doesn't feel enjoyable to hold a grudge, to remember the times that we've been hurt, but we also find it very difficult to let go of our hurts and grudges. And you and others have studied why it is this happens. What do you find?

Charlotte Witvliet: So often I think we seek vindication. And one of the things that we found early on was that when people were thinking about the offense, nursing a grudge took the edge off their sadness, and it actually led them to feel a greater sense of perceived control and a little less bad. Although overall, they still had the same high levels of anger.

Shankar Vedantam: Can you talk for a moment, how for many people, letting go of a grudge doesn't even seem like it's possible. They don't even realize that they actually have a choice.

Charlotte Witvliet: I think that our emotions are so powerful, and when we're distressed and we see so clearly what is so very wrong, we aren't in a mode of thinking flexibly. We don't always go to the place of saying, we can tell the truth about how wrong it is, and we can tell the truth about the humanity of the other person. Those things can be really a big stretch for us when we are deeply distressed and acutely aware of how wrong the injustice is.

Shankar Vedantam: You mentioned something a second ago about the role that our emotions are playing. You and others have studied how grudges produce anger, but also in some ways how anger then in turn feeds a grudge. Can you talk about this almost symbiotic relationship between the hurts we carry, the grudges we hold and the emotion of anger?

Charlotte Witvliet: Yeah. So, anger is something that we experience subjectively, but we also experience it in a very embodied kind of way. And it can put us in a place of almost inflexibility, where we are on the lookout for evidence that we're right, and that we have reason to be angry. We can be on the lookout for clues that the person is really as bad as we feel like they are based on the behavior. We can tell the story of what happened in such a way that it really conveys our powerful emotions, almost amping up the adjectives and adverbs that communicate the force of our emotions, but that can also amp up the contempt and condemnation that we experience. And those things solidify the anger, solidify the narrative and solidify that place of emotional inflexibility. Even when we encounter things that might help us get out of that loop, we're inclined to dismiss them, and instead tell the story in a way that supports our remaining in that grudge mode.

Shankar Vedantam: I want to talk about one last barrier to forgiveness. Sometimes I think we believe that we can ask people to forgive in the absence of accountability, in the absence of what you might call psychological safety. Some years ago, we did an episode on a forgiveness ceremony in a war torn country. This was Sierra Leone, where perpetrators would confess their crimes over a bonfire and victims were expected to immediately forgive them.

Speaker 5: They gave me a knife to kill his father. But what I did was not my choice. Please forgive me.

Speaker 6: I have accepted and I have agreed to forgive him.

Shankar Vedantam: But when the researcher, Oeindrila Dube, later measured the effectiveness of the technique on psychological well-being, here is what she found.

Oeindrilla Dube: This process of talking about the past is actually painful and personally difficult for people as manifest in worsened psychological wellbeing in these communities. So, we have three different measures that we look at, anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder, and depression. And we find that all three outcomes are actually worse in the communities that have gone through this process. And we think this is consistent with that idea that going through these memories of war in a short, intense fashion can actually reopen some old wounds.

Shankar Vedantam: Charlotte, can you talk about this idea that trying to force forgiveness, especially in maybe this short, intense way without perhaps proper accountability, that in some ways it could backfire on our ability to be forgiving?

Charlotte Witvliet: Yes. When we have horrifying hurts, traumas, to put people in a position where they're expected to confront that pain and open it up on someone else's terms, but without the time to process them, as well as without the sense of agency that, "I'm deciding to do this, this is a choice of mine and I'm committing to it." We often have to hit the pause button and say, first, we need to care about safety. I mean, physical safety, emotional safety, psychological safety, sexual safety, spiritual safety. If we haven't assured safety and if we don't have plans in place for accountability that halts the harms, we can actually add deep hurt to that existing hurt and put people at greater risk.

Shankar Vedantam: When we come back, how grudges and forgiveness affect our bodies and our minds. You're listening to Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Psychologist Charlotte Witvliet studies the barriers, pathways, and effects of forgiveness. Many of us find that giving up hurts can be painful. We sometimes go to great lengths to nurture grudges and to keep the embers of our anger glowing.

Shankar Vedantam: Grudges can consume our minds, but increasingly researchers are also discovering that they can have measurable effects on our bodies. Charlotte has brought volunteers into the lab and asked them to ruminate on harms done to them. The results are striking.

Charlotte Witvliet: When we ask people to come into the lab and relive these real-life hurts that they've experienced, it allows us to see how their bodies react. And we have examined their cardiovascular responses by looking at their heart rates and their blood pressure. We've also looked at a measure called heart rate variability, which is an index of the parasympathetic or the calming regulatory mechanisms that connect to the brain and the heart. And another thing that we've looked at is sweat, as well as different facial muscles that are important for emotion.

Shankar Vedantam: And what do you find happens to people's heart rates and blood pressure, and their facial muscles, and their sweating? What happens when they ruminate on past hurts and grudges?

Charlotte Witvliet: When people come into the lab and they are ruminating about real-life hurts, their heart rates escalate, their blood pressure surges. And there's an important measure of the regulation of the heart that plummets when people are ruminating. At the same time, their faces are showing furrowing of the brow, as well as tension underneath the eye.

Shankar Vedantam: And all of us in some ways have experienced what you're just describing. We might not have observed these markers as carefully, but all of us, I think can remember times when we are laying in bed at night, maybe one o'clock in the morning, two o'clock in the morning, and we remember something hurtful that's happened. And we experienced a stress response in some ways to the memories of past hurt.

Charlotte Witvliet: Yes. Have you ever had it where even your chest hurt? You had that sinking feeling. Sometimes that corresponds to this decrease in vagal tone, which makes it harder to be flexibly toggling out of that ruminative mode.

Shankar Vedantam: So, you do these studies that measure in some ways the effects of rumination on past hurts. But then you also ask some people in these experiments to try and exercise forgiveness. What are the instructions you give them to accomplish this? And what do you find? What do your measures show?

Charlotte Witvliet: One of the prompts that we've used in a lot of our studies is meant to invite a compassionate way of reappraising their response to the offender. So, we ask people to remember that this person who offended them is a human being and to focus on the humanity of this person. We also asked them to think about the wrongdoing as evidence that things aren't right, that the person needs to experience some sort of learning or growth, or change, or transformation. And that they're in a unique position to be able to see some way in which that person may need to be able to grow or improve. And then find even a small way to genuinely wish that person well towards that good future.

Shankar Vedantam: And when you ask people to do this, do you also continue to measure their physiological markers, the ones that you talked about before?

Charlotte Witvliet: Yes.

Shankar Vedantam: And what do you find?

Charlotte Witvliet: Physiologically their bodies are showing less of a stress response. So, their heart rate doesn't escalate as much. Their blood pressure doesn't escalate as much. Their sweat levels are closer to baseline. Their heart rate variability is more like the relaxation baseline condition. So, even though they're still thinking about that same offender and the specific offense that is hurtful, they are able to maintain more of a regulated, calm, embodied response.

Shankar Vedantam: So, someone who listens to this and says, "All right. I want to tweak my heart rate and blood pressure, and parasympathetic nervous system and get those things working in a way that's good for me. And okay, what Charlotte Witvliet is telling me is that if I forgive, I get all of these physical benefits." You have, however, argued that some of these benefits might be better understood as side effects of forgiveness rather than the real effects of forgiveness. Why do you say that?

Charlotte Witvliet: The reason I use the language of side effects is because I think it can help us keep in view that forgiveness is a moral response to a relational breach. It's about meaning and relational injustice, and healing. And at the same time, because it's humans who are engaging the response, it means that psychology, the cognition, the emotion, the behavior, and the physiology is all part of that. But I think that there are other things we could do to simply get lower heart rate or blood pressure, or calm cardiovascular systems that have nothing to do with the events at all that wouldn't necessarily bring about forgiveness.

Shankar Vedantam: So, there's some irony here, because I think what I hear you saying is that when we try and exercise forgiveness, because we're trying to obtain some kind of mental or physical benefit, not only is that not potentially real forgiveness, but perhaps we don't even get the full mental and physiological benefits of forgiveness.

Charlotte Witvliet: There's some interesting research that if you ask people to try to simply distract themselves, rather than trying to reappraise it in a forgiving way, for example, that later on, when they're prompted to relive the offense, it's the people who tried to reappraise it in a forgiving way that experience the blood pressure changes in an enduring way. Whereas the people who merely distracted themselves and had a blood pressure benefit in the short term, didn't hold onto that because there wasn't real engagement with the relational injustice and that moral response.

Shankar Vedantam: How useful do you think short-term lab experiments that measure physical markers, how useful do you think they are in telling us about the effects of forgiveness in the real world where both harms can sometimes unfold over years, but also forgiveness can sometimes unfold over years or even decades?

Charlotte Witvliet: I think lab experiments have their place, but we shouldn't overstate them, either. So, what they allow us to do is examine a thin slice, and to determine, with specificity, the nature of the different kinds of physiological responses that happen and how long it takes for a particular reappraisal or rumination condition to have its effect. It's so important to make sure that there is research that examines what it's like to see these responses unfurl over longer durations, that follows people over longitudinal designs or even more dyadic interactions.

Shankar Vedantam: You've sometimes talked about forgiveness, not as a decision, but as a process. And you've sometimes drawn an analogy between forgiveness and our response to grief. Can you talk about that, the fact that forgiveness might not be a binary, yes, no answer, but much more of a process.

Charlotte Witvliet: Forgiveness, so much like grief, is an unfolding journey. We have experienced deep hurt because of a loss. And so, our emotions as we process this loss, unfold over time. And we may adopt a different mindset about it and experience a sense that we are moving forward in our meaning-making, in our absorption of the reality of it, in our reckoning with it, and in our capacity to tolerate distress around it. And perhaps even in our sense of hope.

Charlotte Witvliet: And then we can have memories arise and setbacks occur in terms of how we feel. And so, there's not like this neat linear process where you do step A, and then B, and then C, and then you're done. This journey has its own twists and turns. And there can be surprises. There can be times of incredible, effortful intentionality that feel almost fruitless, but there are other times where that persistence can all of a sudden be met with like an aha revelation, a gift, but those emotions can't just be unfurled at will.

Shankar Vedantam: To put this another way, you can decide to forgive someone, but your heart might not go along with your head. The choice to forgive can be made in an instant, but the experience of what it means to forgive can unfold much more slowly.

Charlotte Witvliet: There are two types of forgiveness that are sometimes discussed. And this comes out of the work of Everett Worthington. Decisional forgiveness is this very cognitive intention and commitment to respond in a way that might align with one's value system to do the right thing as it were in forgiving. And there's also emotional forgiveness, which involves a change of heart where more positive and generous responses to another human supplant the hurt and bitter kinds of responses that are otherwise there with unforgiveness.

Charlotte Witvliet: In the work that we're doing, we're actually asking people to try on these different mindsets, so they can try this conscious, effortful way of thinking through things. What we find is that that too has at least a short-term reliable effect on shifting people's emotions, not only deescalating the negative intensity, but also generating positive, other-oriented responses.

Shankar Vedantam: Charlotte says our ability to demonstrate positive and generous responses to another person, to empathize with them, this is critical to our ability to forgive. And empathy seems to come more easily to some of us than to others. Charlotte and her colleagues have tried to unravel why that is. They study the effects of genes. And they've also looked at gender differences in terms of empathy and forgiveness.

Charlotte Witvliet: Empathy plays such a central role in forgiveness. Women self-report higher perspective-taking and empathic concern than men do. What we found in our research is that empathy is the connector. It's the mediator between gender and the disposition of forgivingness in general, as well as the extent to which people express forgiveness toward a real-life offender while they're reliving that hurt.

Charlotte Witvliet: We also did some genetics research, looking at a particular genetic variation that is associated with empathy and sociality. So, the oxytocin receptor gene single nucleotide polymorphism rs53576 was the predictor. So, empathy is the hub of the genetics and forgiveness relationship.

Shankar Vedantam: We've talked at some length, Charlotte, about the effects that forgiveness can have on us. And I want to spend a moment just talking about the effects that forgiveness can have on other people, including people who have transgressed against us.

Shankar Vedantam: Some years ago, the social psychologist Roy Baumeister conducted a study that found that people were less likely to repeat offenses if they had been forgiven for an earlier offense. What do you make of a study like that? Why do you think you would see an effect like that?

Charlotte Witvliet: Gratitude. When we receive a gift like that, we're grateful for it. And to the extent that people feel appreciative of receiving forgiveness, and to the extent that they sense their own accountability for what they have done, and they realize the gift that someone's giving them when they're forgiven, they may have a stronger sense of commitment to not enact that sort of harm again. However, it's also the case that when people who have disagreeable personalities receive forgiveness, unfortunately they sometimes are reinforced. They're almost emboldened and they have a sense that they can get away with things. So, I think that can go in two different ways.

Shankar Vedantam: I'm wondering Charlotte, as somebody who is besides a researcher and a clinical expert, somebody who is also a human being, who goes through life, have there been times in your life when you've experienced hurts that you find difficult to set aside or forget?

Charlotte Witvliet: Oh yes, I have. And what's so interesting to me is that sometimes it's hard to not ruminate even about small things. But more often for me, rumination has been a struggle for the really, really deep losses and wounds, ones that are related to the suffering and death of people I love dearly. The hurts that are the hardest for me are the ones where it's so clear to me what the wrongdoing is and the consequences are so enormous, and there's no undoing them.

Shankar Vedantam: In some ways, I think, Charlotte, you're pointing to something that a lot of people experience, which is sometimes we are called to exercise forgiveness when a transgressor has not acknowledged the harm they have done to us. So, in some ways you don't have the satisfaction of having achieved justice. And what I hear you saying is that these are the things that you have struggled with, where in these situations you have asked yourself, "Am I still capable of trying to exercise forgiveness?" When in fact there has been incomplete accountability and perhaps never will be complete accountability.

Charlotte Witvliet: Yes, it is definitely the hardest when an injustice is deeply painful and so clearly wrong, and yet goes unrecognized by the person who bears responsibility, especially when it's not just a mere matter of opinion or perspective or personal preference for how something is done, but it's an undeniable offense where there's no apology on the horizon. There is no indication of regard at all. That's the hardest because it feels so dehumanizing. It feels so unacknowledged. And in some ways then so unspeakable. Those are really, really hard situations. That's where having a very long view and a view of justice that transcends what any one of us is capable of in this world can be very important, that to the extent that there's a sense of ultimate trust, for example, in a God who cares about justice and transformation, and mercy. That can be incredibly powerful.

Shankar Vedantam: Now, your father was a pastor, and I understand that you yourself are also deeply religious. And I'm wondering, has that informed the way that you are thinking about forgiveness? Because I hear a very much, as you just said, it may be that in the here and now there's not a neat equation that basically says, "I'm going to give you X amount of forgiveness in return for Y amount of accountability." It may be that one of those is actually not in the here and now, but in the hereafter, at least as you see it.

Charlotte Witvliet: You're right. My father was a pastor, who was present with people in the best of times, and also the worst of times, the horrific sorts of traumatic times, the betrayals, offering care. And so, I think I became very aware about the kinds of suffering that so very many people experience, and yet it's so rare that apologies and repentant change, and accountability are fully embodied in convincing and complete sorts of ways here and now.

Charlotte Witvliet: So yes, I've been shaped by that and certainly have been shaped by a gospel that takes very seriously injustice and the cause of the oppressed, and the importance of having justice and mercy meet in a God who took on the fullness of pain and suffering, and is the one through whom all of that will be transformed, where every tool that is a weapon of harm will be transformed into a tool of cultivation.

Police dispatch audio: [inaudible 00:30:10] Emmanuel AME Church and several people-

Shankar Vedantam: On June 17th, 2015, a white supremacist walked into the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. What happened next shocked the nation and a warning that it remains shocking years later. The man had a gun and he used it to murder nine black people inside the church.

News report: People inside were gathered for Bible study.

Speaker 10: These people were in church. They were in church. And they violated the sanctity of that.

News report: Investigators are calling the shooting a hate crime.

Speaker 11: The only reason someone could walk into church and shoot people praying is out of hate. The only reason.

Shankar Vedantam: The shooter was later convicted on federal hate crime charges and sentenced to death. Here's what the sister of one of the victims had to say to him.

Speaker 12: For me, I'm a work in progress, and I acknowledge that I am very angry, but one thing the pain has always joined in our family with, is that she taught me that we are the family that love built. We have no room for hate. So, we have to forgive. I pray God on your soul.

Shankar Vedantam: What goes through your mind as you hear this, Charlotte?

Charlotte Witvliet: I hear such profound faith, such profound commitment to a life and an intergenerational community at Mother Emanuel that lives a gospel of grace and forgiveness, and that acknowledges the horror and the injustice of the horrific murders. And that is so able to tell the full truth that this particular clip, this woman can speak to her grief, her anger, to the wrongness of the injustice. And can also say that there is no room for hate that seeks to destroy, but rather seeks to transform it with grace.

President Barack Obama: Amazing grace. (singing)

Shankar Vedantam: I want to talk for a moment Charlotte, about not just interpersonal harms and interpersonal forgiveness, but harms that take place at the level of groups, perhaps even historical harms, and our capacity to forgive entire groups, or the demands that are placed on some groups to forgive other groups. Does the research say anything at all about the value of doing so, the challenges of doing so, and the benefits of doing so?

Charlotte Witvliet: What strikes me first, is to hear the experience of people who have experienced profound injustice and to honor those stories, and the layers of harm and the implications of those, and to in no way, excuse, ignore or distract ourselves from that, but to be able to see the fullness of the wrong. And that condemnation alone may not bring about the change that people seek. So, it's an invitation to accountability.

Charlotte Witvliet: And my first thought is how important it is for us to focus on the need to repent. That is, to recognize the places where we are the complicit ones, or we are the bystanders.

Charlotte Witvliet: Part of this field of forgiveness research examines what it means to reckon with our own wrongdoing and our own participation in systemic wrongs, and to enact the kind of change that halts the harm, creates safety and fairness, because we actually need to also engage in the kind of change that's required for our victims to receive the good change that they seek. And that is good for us, too.

Shankar Vedantam: When we come back, when forgiveness to you feels like betrayal to me. You're listening to Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. How long do you carry around your grudges and wounds? Do you nurture them, grow them, tend to them? What effect does this have on you? At Hope College in Michigan, psychologist Charlotte Witvliet studies the psychological barriers to forgiveness and the consequences of letting go of our hurts.

Shankar Vedantam: Charlotte, I want to play you a clip. This is from the writer Amber Sparks, discussing her book, And I Do Not Forgive You. That's the title of the book. She is referring here in this discussion to the Me Too Movement and the harms inflicted on women for many centuries.

Amber Sparks: It was important to me to write an anti-redemption story, because we have this idea about narrative in our society where there's somebody and they do something bad to someone else, and eventually they're forgiven, and everybody learns something, and then we can tie a bow on it. It isn't that great. And I felt like with what's happening right now with Me Too, there are people who don't deserve redemption, or at least it's not owed to you as a victim to give somebody that gift, especially after like a fricking year or two or whatever, which some of these guys are asking for.

Amber Sparks: So, it was important to me to write a counter narrative that included the idea that the person doesn't have to grant forgiveness, and that not only can that be okay, but that can actually be transformative.

Shankar Vedantam: I'm wondering, in the course of the Me Too Movement, there have been cases where people have said the people who have harassed women, have lost their jobs or they've suffered in some way, they've been punished enough, they should be forgiven and we should move on. And I'm wondering both as a researcher who studies forgiveness and as a woman, how you hear that kind of conversation. How does that strike you?

Charlotte Witvliet: I think there's something about empathizing primarily with the wrongdoer at the expense of the victim that is so problematic. And that telling the truth about what has happened, needs to place at the center the concerns of the person who has been most violated, most unjustly treated, the group that has been most hurt or unjustly treated, but it is an additional injustice to quickly rush to say, "Oh, I'm so moved by that powerful display of repentance." And then forget that true repentance involves accountable change and the welcoming of being accountable.

Charlotte Witvliet: So, I think we need to be looking for that. We need to be looking for, are the people who are being held accountable owning their own need for undergoing change that's genuine and that's responsive.

Shankar Vedantam: I want to draw your attention to something that Amber Sparks said in clip, because at least emotionally, I feel like it rings true. It seems to me that sometimes not forgiving can feel empowering.

Charlotte Witvliet: Not forgiving can feel empowering because it can be an agentic choice, in contrast to being put in a position that you didn't have any choice about. One thing that we found in my very first study of forgiveness, comparing rumination about a hurt to grudge holding, was that when nursing a grudge against a real-life offender, people felt more control. They felt less sad. They felt less afraid. They felt more positive.

Charlotte Witvliet: At the same time, it's also true that the ones that remembered the humanity of the offender and that engaged a forgiving response, those empathic and forgiving responses were even more full of perceived control and positivity, with less anger and less sadness. And that's where the embodied stress responses were quieted down the most.

Shankar Vedantam: I'm thinking about our capacity for anger and our capacity for forgiveness in terms of our evolutionary history. And I want to run an idea by you. It seems to me that if forgiveness was always in our interest, or in the interest of our groups, we wouldn't find it so hard to do. Our brains would find it easier to forget grudges, if in fact forgetting grudges was good for us, or at least evolutionarily if it had been good for our ancestors. I'm wondering if it's possible that the story of forgiveness, is it possible that it's missing out on the power that retribution and vengeance have to generate good behavior? In other words, if I thought you were certain to forgive me no matter what I did, so long as I'm appropriately contrite afterwards, isn't that an invitation for me to take advantage of you?

Charlotte Witvliet: You are right in Mike McCullough's area. Groups try to uphold their social norms in lots of different ways. And punishments is one way, sometimes retaliation, sometimes avoidance or ostracism is enacted as a way of not only addressing the harm directly or the wrongdoer directly, but also sending a powerful signal about what the rules are. So, everybody observing is pretty clear on what it means to be in this group. And Mike McCullough's work also identifies a place for forgiveness and conciliatory responses for the good of the group and the survival of it.

Shankar Vedantam: I mean, this is the paradox, isn't it? Which is that, a group that basically has no memory of past wrongs and ignores those past wrongs, or it's too quick to forgive, is a group that's going to get taken advantage of. But a group that cannot forget past wrongs or cannot get beyond the pain of wrongs that have been done to them, is not a group that can move forward. And in some ways, you're stuck between a rock and a hard place. It's really the middle path that you suggested, where you're both aware of the harms that were done, and you're exercising empathy for the people who have harmed you. I mean, that does seem to be the middle path between these two extremes.

Charlotte Witvliet: I think you're right. It's so crucial to be able to engage in the both-and of truth telling and accountability. So, we need to reckon with wrongs. We need to resist minimizing them or excusing, or ignoring, or simply distracting ourselves from them because that can reward bad behavior, especially by disagreeable personalities, who feel emboldened by that. And at the same time when vindication is pursued predominantly through vindictiveness, that is a very destructive pattern, too. And so, if a group wants to move forward, or if a person wants to move forward, they have to be sure that they can see that humanity and they can see the kind of corrective change that needs to be enacted, so that those past wrongs don't simply get perpetuated into the future.

Shankar Vedantam: You've talked, Charlotte, about how, in some ways, when it comes to forgiving other people, it's this balance between seeking accountability and exercising empathy. How does this balance play out when it comes to forgiving ourselves for things that we have said or done?

Charlotte Witvliet: One thing that's really powerful is how important it is to humbly reckon with our own capacity for wrongdoing and to address the reality of hurts that we have caused others by behaving in ways that are unfair or unjust, but at the same time to be understanding and patient with ourselves, even as we are persistent and intentional in trying to do the right thing in our relationship with others.

Charlotte Witvliet: It's just so crucial to have the accountability piece there, though, because otherwise I think we can slip into sort of a cheap grace that so readily sees all the reasons why we should be excused of the things we've done, but finds it so hard to extend mercy to others. So, it's a complicated thing to get the right mix.

Shankar Vedantam:I want to play your clip from the movie Pay It Forward. Helen Hunt's character is a single mother and a recovering alcoholic. And she's speaking to her mother about being traumatized during her childhood. Take a listen to the clip.

Helen Hunt, as Arlene McKinney: I want to try to do something. All the things when I was a kid, the booze and the men, what happened to me when you weren't looking. I know we're all weak.

Speaker 16: Not you.

Helen Hunt, as Arlene McKinney: No, I've been weak. Well, here's the thing. I forgive you.

Shankar Vedantam: I want to speak a moment, Charlotte, about why many of us find these moments moving, even when we are not involved, when we are not the protagonists. Why is it that we find the granting of forgiveness to be beautiful?

Charlotte Witvliet: It's so striking. When you have a sense that someone has seen it, they can tell the truth about it, and they have suffered, there's just a very, very powerful awareness of the reaching across that injustice gap to extend some kindness or mercy to someone that takes our breath away.

Charlotte Witvliet: It is remarkable when we witness these profound, generous gifts of forgiveness. And I think it inspires hope for us, too. I am borrowing this from Everett Worthington, but he is quick to say, and I joined with this perspective, that forgiving is about giving, but in giving there's receiving, too.

Shankar Vedantam: Charlotte Witvliet is a psychologist at Hope College in Michigan. Charlotte, thank you for joining me today on Hidden Brain.

Charlotte Witvliet: Thank you so much for having me on Hidden Brain. It's a joy.

Shankar Vedantam: Hidden Brain is produced by Hidden Brain Media. Our production team includes Bridget McCarthy, Laura Kwerel, Kristin Wong, Ryan Katz, Autumn Barnes, and Andrew Chadwick. Tara Boyle is our executive producer. I'm Hidden Brain's executive editor.

Shankar Vedantam: Our unsung hero today is Turner Canty. Turner is a freelance producer who's been helping us with an audio project that was on our to-do list for months. It was one of those projects that required attention to detail and patience, both of which Turner brought to his work in abundance. We're really grateful for your help Turner, and wish you the best of luck as you get ready to begin graduate school.

Shankar Vedantam: If you like this episode, please be sure to share it with three friends. If they are new to podcasting, please show them how to subscribe to our show. Next week, why it's so hard to apologize or to admit when we've hurt someone. I'm Shankar Vedantam. See you next week.


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