How Does Forgiveness Work?


What Science Tells Us About Letting Things Go

In the fall of 2009, I stood at my stepmother’s hospital bed as she slowly died from late-stage breast cancer. I told her that I loved her and thanked her for being a grandmother to my two children. That was the last time I saw her. A few months later, I found out that she’d created a secret will. My father had put various assets of theirs in her name to keep them safe from lawsuits directed at his construction business. In a document hidden from my father, she left it all to her two daughters, my stepsisters. The betrayal cut deep. The will included a house that I loved but, much more painfully, it indicated that a relationship I’d invested in for twenty years had been entirely one-sided. She willingly hurt me to get something she wanted.

Few, if any, of us make it through life without some kind of deep emotional pain. So we are also bound to encounter the need to forgive, a decision — a skill, really — that many people find challenging, even impossible. And yet there are profound stories in which victims forgive offenders for acts of violence that seem impossible to let go. Take the encounters witnessed by Melike Fourie, who researches empathy at the Neuroscience Institute at the University of Capetown. She spent several years working with psychologist Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, a pioneering researcher of forgiveness in post-Apartheid South Africa. As part of that work, Fourie watched footage of encounters between victims and perpetrators of violence filmed by documentarian Mark J. Kaplan. In one video, a mother offered forgiveness to the man who’d thrown a bomb that killed her son. In another, a woman, upon meeting the officer who’d killed her brother, refused his hollow demand for absolution and broke a vase over his head instead.

When Fourie shared these stories with me, I wondered whether I would be the forgiver or the vase breaker. And I felt frustrated by the hard time I had forgiving far less harmful transgressions. How can a grieving mother reconcile with the man who killed her child under the banner of a horrific, racist regime and yet I could not forgive my husband’s ex-wife for keeping tabs on which parent had bought which pair of their son’s underwear? Years after my stepmother died the wound was still open. I didn’t want to be possessed by hurt or anger but I couldn’t find a way to drop it. Why was it so hard?

A growing body of research reveals the complexity of how forgiveness works in our brains. The many pathways involved, both neurological and psychological, explain why it’s not that easy to stop stewing. But they also provide a mercifully detailed map of the way forward.

Fourie began examining the brain anatomy of forgiveness after those two encounters she’d watched, wondering why one person would hug a perpetrator and another would hurt him. She collected all the data she could find about forgiveness and identified three processes that are crucial to letting go of old hurts, each of which is tied to specific regions of the brain. To Fourie, who published her analysis in 2020, the data are clear: We are hardwired to forgive. But the complexity of that hardwiring means that having the ability to let go doesn’t make it readily accessible.

Perhaps the most obvious requirement is what psychologists refer to as cognitive control — and what the rest of us call getting a hold of ourselves. Most of us know what it’s like to lack cognitive control. We say mean things to get back at someone. We slam doors. We hire lawyers to take exes to court. We smash vases over heads.

But our brains have the capacity to choose otherwise. The emotional regulation required to control our temper is stitched right into our prefrontal cortex. Situated above our eyes, the prefrontal cortex is responsible for complex functions that other species don’t typically grapple with, such as the need to calm ourselves down when something upsets us. The dorsolateral portion of this region is part of the brain network that enables us to imagine what other people are thinking. It’s active when we create hypothetical situations. And the entire prefrontal region helps us resist impulsive behavior.

The results of practicing forgiveness are visible in the brain. Cyberball, a simple ball-toss video game, is a favorite among psychologists researching the consequences of experiences like rejection, exclusion and ostracism. Utrecht University social neuroscientist Geert-Jan Will used it in a 2015 study of exclusion. He noticed activity in the prefrontal cortex among participants who decided not to hold a grudge when they were left out of the game. And he saw heightened activity in that same region among adolescents who had already dealt with a lot of rejection in their lives. Will thought that perhaps young people who’d been hurt repeatedly needed to draw on this brain region more because forgiveness had become harder. “They may have had a bigger urge to lash out,” said Will, “it required more cognitive control.” It’s a finding that may resonate with anyone who has been pushed to the brink.

Michael McCullough, a psychologist at University of California, San Diego, who looks at the mind through the lens of human evolution, explains that one reason why forgiveness is difficult is because it’s a more recent adaptation compared to revenge. Retaliation is a primitive survival tool designed to deter future harms: hurt me and I’ll hurt you back. The problem with revenge, from an evolutionary perspective, is that it ends relationships that may be valuable. It also threatens our lives, since the target of our anger-driven response is bound to return the volley. “Forgiveness is a solution to the problem of revenge,” said McCullough.

But the survival benefit of forgiveness doesn’t make it easy to choose. We have to actively decide to rise above more primitive circuitry. And Mary Noble, CEO of Feminenza, a UK-based charity that offers workshops on forgiveness as part of trauma healing and community resilience programs across the world, points out that surrounding ourselves with movies and television shows that glorify payback doesn’t help that goal. “Not forgiving has become completely enshrined in our cultures, our traditions, our ideologies,” said Noble.

In her workshops, Noble often counsels participants to not wait for an apology before experiencing forgiveness. She recalled one woman who’d spent five angry years imagining that a boyfriend who’d betrayed her would soon come crawling back, begging for mercy. Eventually she discovered that he’d married someone else and was living his best life somewhere far away. Stories like this, said Noble, get at the heart of choosing forgiveness even when we’re never going to hear the words “I’m sorry.” Exes move. Stepmothers die. “Forgiveness is about not having to carry the bitterness of yesterday,” said Noble, “even if you’re not getting an apology.”

The problem with requiring an apology is that it depends on the giver of it understanding how and why they hurt us. But forgiveness needs just the opposite: for us to understand the other person. This is where Fourie’s second part of forgiveness — perspective taking — enters the picture. Perspective taking is exactly what it sounds like. “You really try to imagine what someone else has done from their point of view,” said Fourie, “thinking about the person’s situation and what might have led them to do this.” More than 85 percent of the studies in Fourie’s 2020 analysis identified perspective-taking as a requirement for forgiveness. In other words, research has verified the life experience of anyone who has ever forgiven: when you see where the other person is coming from, it’s so much easier.

The challenge, of course, is finding that understanding. Anatomically, perspective taking lives in the temporoparietal junction, or TPJ. This area is not a specific region but rather the point where the temporal cortex and parietal cortex meet, toward the back middle of the brain. It’s active, said Will, “in any kinds of decisions that involve another person.” As with cognitive control, the more we practice understanding, the better we get at it.

Again, studies of how our brains react to exclusion illuminate the underlying process. Will used Cyberball to study forgiveness by having participants suddenly be left out of a three-person game, with no explanation or remorse (in reality, the exclusion is programmed; there are no other players). After being rejected in the game for a few minutes, the participants were offered money and asked if they were willing to split their winnings with the players who’d excluded them. The researchers interpreted sharing the money as forgiveness and not sharing as punishment.

The participants completed a questionnaire designed to reveal their tendency to take another person’s perspective and underwent an MRI scan as they decided what to do with the money. Individuals who self-reported being good at thinking about things from another point of view were indeed more likely to share the prize. And the TPJ was more active among those who’d been excluded from the game and still chose to split the money than among those who chose to split the money but were never left out. That brain activity, says Will, “is a reflection of overcoming the urge to punish someone who previously harmed you, and even act nice toward them.”

Sometimes, said Noble, the understanding we need to have is with ourselves. In 2015, Global Communities, a US-based humanitarian organization, asked Feminenza to conduct a two-week workshop on trauma healing for community leaders in the informal settlements of Nairobi, Kenya; Noble later learned that many of the participants were former gang leaders. On the first day of the workshop, a man named Clive, a Muslim man in his fifties, expressed profound fear that God would never forgive him for the crimes he’d committed. A few days and several intense forgiveness-focused workshops later, Noble recalled, he told her that when he looks in the mirror, “I still see a middle-aged, balding, fat loser.”

She offered him a different take. He was humble. He was patient. He was courageous. She replayed moments of their time together when he had shown these qualities in abundance. “I could see the tears running down his face,” she said. Then he started talking about his childhood. His parents had died when he was young and he and his siblings were so poor that they would eat the flies that landed on their arms for sustenance. Gang life was a way to survive. Recounting his past enabled him to stop blaming himself for the crimes he’d committed. Noble offered him another perspective. “If I was God,” she told him, “I would forgive you in a heartbeat.”

How quick we are to forgive also depends on what’s at stake. “Forgiveness involves calculations,” said Fourie, “it involves a cost-benefit analysis.” She refers to that weighing as social valuation, the third component of forgiveness. It, too, has neurological roots. The ventro-medial frontal cortex enables us to determine the value of holding a grudge or letting it go, while the orbitofrontal cortex shows us the reward of restoring a friendship, of compassion, of peace. Any wrongdoing, or perceived wrongdoing, sets these wheels in motion. Will the perpetrator harm us again? How valuable is the relationship? What are the consequences of staying angry?

This kind of rational decision-making is crucial, says Noble, because we don’t often feel forgiving even when we understand its importance. “If you wait for the feelings, it’s going to take you a long time,” she said. And sometimes, the calculation leads us to see that we aren’t ready to forgive. “You can’t make someone non-threatening who continues to be a threat,” said McCullough.

These three components — cognitive control, perspective taking and social valuation — don’t happen independently. Rather, says Fourie, they interact with each other, creating an intricate network. For researchers like Fourie, this complexity makes studying forgiveness difficult. For all of us, it means that forgiveness can take time.

Fourie adds a last important qualification. “Genuine forgiveness,” she said, “entails a positive shift toward the perpetrator, so that you eventually wish that person well.” In the meeting Fourie witnessed between the mother and the man who had killed her son with a bomb, the mother had offered forgiveness without the man expecting it at all. The moment changed the man’s life. He became a leader in his community and a force for positive change in post-Apartheid South Africa. “It set his life on a completely different journey,” Fourie said.

All this research on forgiveness led me back to my stepmother. The need to let go of the past is undeniable; whether we will do so is less certain. My emotions about the secret will have long since dissipated and the threat of being hurt again by my stepmother is nonexistent. So all that remains is perspective taking. I cannot know why she did what she did, but what I do know is that the only person affected by my lack of forgiveness is me. And why punish myself for something I had nothing to do with? I choose to forgive so that I can live in the present and move on. I can’t set her life on a different journey, but I can do that for myself.

Or I could always just redirect my anger at the real problem: my father.

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Jessica Wapner, journalist, author and podcaster
Human Parts

Jessica Wapner writes for The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Scientific American & elsewhere. She co-hosted the podcast One Click and has written two books.