We are predisposed to forgive, new research suggests

September 17, 2018, Yale University
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

When assessing the moral character of others, people cling to good impressions but readily adjust their opinions about those who have behaved badly, according to new research.

This flexibility in judging transgressors might help explain both how humans forgive—and why they sometimes stay in bad relationships, said the study's authors.

The research—conducted by psychologists at Yale, University of Oxford, University College London, and the International School for Advanced Studies—appeared Sept. 17 in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.

"The brain forms social in a way that can enable forgiveness," said Yale psychologist Molly Crockett, senior author of the paper. "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."

Across a series of experiments, more than 1500 subjects observed the choices of two strangers who faced a moral dilemma: whether to inflict painful electric shocks on another person in exchange for money. While the "good" mostly refused to shock another person for money, the "bad" stranger tended to maximize their profits despite the painful consequences. The subjects were asked their impressions of the strangers' moral character and how confident they were about those impressions.

Subjects rapidly formed stable, positive impressions of the good stranger and were highly confident of their impressions. However, the subjects were far less confident that the bad stranger was truly bad and could change their minds quickly. For instance, when the bad stranger occasionally made a generous choice, subjects' impressions immediately improved—until they witnessed the stranger's next transgression."

This pattern of impression updating may provide some insight into why people sometimes hold on to bad relationships, Crockett said. "We think our findings reveal a basic predisposition towards giving others, even strangers, the benefit of the doubt. The human mind is built for maintaining social relationships, even when partners sometimes behave badly."

The research also may eventually help shed light on psychiatric disorders involving social difficulties, such as Borderline Personality Disorder.

"The ability to accurately form impressions of others' character is crucial for the development and maintenance of healthy relationships" said Jenifer Siegel, an Oxford doctoral student and lead author of the paper. "We have developed new tools for measuring impression formation, which could help improve our understanding of relational dysfunction."

Explore further: When it comes to your profile picture, let a stranger do the choosing

More information: Beliefs about bad people are volatile, Nature Human Behaviour (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41562-018-0425-1 , https://www.nature.com/articles/s41562-018-0425-1

Related Stories

When it comes to your profile picture, let a stranger do the choosing

April 13, 2017
When trying to pick the most flattering pictures for online profiles, it may be best to let a stranger do the choosing, a study published in the open access journal Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications suggests.

How we judge personality from faces depends on our pre-existing beliefs about how personality works

August 27, 2018
We make snap judgments of others based not only on their facial appearance, but also on our pre-existing beliefs about how others' personalities work, finds a new study by a team of psychology researchers.

Why do we trust, or not trust, strangers? The answer is Pavlovian

January 29, 2018
Our trust in strangers is dependent on their resemblance to others we've previously known, finds a new study by a team of psychology researchers. Its results show that strangers resembling past individuals known to be trustworthy ...

People know when first impressions are accurate

April 15, 2011
First impressions are important, and they usually contain a healthy dose both of accuracy and misperception. But do people know when their first impressions are correct? They do reasonably well, according to a study in the ...

Confidence is key to gauging impressions we make

March 10, 2010
The gift of "seeing ourselves as others see us" is particularly beneficial when we judge how we've made a first impression -- in a job interview, during a sales pitch or on a first date.

Confidence key in gauging impressions we leave

February 23, 2010
(PhysOrg.com) -- The gift of "seeing ourselves as others see us" is particularly beneficial when we judge how we’ve made a first impression - in a job interview, during a sales pitch, on a first date.

Recommended for you

Study shows how bias can influence people estimating the ages of other people

October 17, 2018
A trio of researchers from the University of New South Wales and Western Sydney University has discovered some of the factors involved when people make errors in estimating the ages of other people. In their paper published ...

Infants are more likely to learn when with a peer

October 16, 2018
Infants are more likely to learn from on-screen instruction when paired with another infant as opposed to viewing the lesson alone, according to a new study.

Researchers use brain cells in a dish to study genetic origins of schizophrenia

October 16, 2018
A study in Biological Psychiatry has established a new analytical method for investigating the complex genetic origins of mental illnesses using brain cells that are grown in a dish from human embryonic stem cells. Researchers ...

Income and wealth affect the mental health of Australians, study shows

October 16, 2018
Australians who have higher incomes and greater wealth are more likely to experience better mental health throughout their lives, new research led by the Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre has found.

Study suggests biological basis for depression, anxiety, sleep disturbances in older adults

October 15, 2018
UC San Francisco researchers, in collaboration with the unique Brazilian Biobank for Aging Studies (BBAS) at the University of São Paulo, have shown that the earliest stages of the brain degeneration associated with Alzheimer's ...

Linguistic red flags from Facebook posts can predict future depression diagnoses

October 15, 2018
In any given year, depression affects more than 6 percent of the adult population in the United States—some 16 million people—but fewer than half receive the treatment they need. What if an algorithm could scan social ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.