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Shock finding: Humans are hardwired to forgive — even after a zapping

Hazardous: Many people stay in bad relationships because of their capacity to forgive PICTURE: CORBIS

HUMANS are easily taken in and want to forgive no matter how badly someone acts, a new study has found.

Even when someone does something immoral, people are reluctant to believe they are actually a bad person, researchers discovered.

So if the same person does something nice, people tend to think they are good, dismissing their previous misgivings.

And they readily believe someone who does something moral is a good person from the outset, giving them the benefit of the doubt too.

Researchers found people’s forgiveness was crucial to developing and maintaining social relationships, so if someone gives the impression they are of bad character, they can easily redeem themselves down the line if they behave well.

This flexibility in judging transgressors might help explain both how humans forgive and why they sometimes stay in bad relationships.

Assistant professor Molly Crockett, at Yale University said: ‘The brain forms social impressions in a way that can enable forgiveness.

‘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 1,500 participants 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’ stranger mostly refused to shock another person for money, the ‘bad’ stranger tended to maximise 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.

They rapidly formed stable, positive impressions of the good stranger and were highly confident of their impressions.

But 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 updating impressions may provide some insight into why people sometimes stick with bad relationships.

Prof 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 may also eventually help shed light on psychiatric disorders involving social difficulties, such as borderline personality disorder.

Lead author and doctoral student Jenifer Siegel at Oxford University said: ‘The ability to accurately form impressions of others’ character is crucial for the development and maintenance of healthy relationships.

‘We have developed new tools for measuring impression formation, which could help improve our understanding of relational dysfunction.’

The study conducted by psychologists at Yale, Oxford, University College London, and the International School for Advanced Studies was published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.