CLU assistant professor Monica Gracyalny learned that people who give gifts or do special favors for loved ones they’ve offended are less likely to be forgiven.
Assistant professor of communication Monica Gracyalny, one of 17 new faculty members to join CLU this fall, collected data from almost 800 people for her 2010 dissertation about how remorse leads to forgiveness in close relationships. So, she’s an expert on seeking forgiveness from family members, romantic partners and close friends. We were feeling low one day and gave her a call.
I did something pretty bad to someone close to me. Actually, it was really bad. I’d like to make it up to them and make everything all right again. Do you have any advice for me?
Somehow, you want to open up a line of communication with them. People who’ve been hurt want explanations of what happened, but not excuses and not justifications. Not “I had a good reason,” but just “I was wrong and here’s what happened.”
You also have to acknowledge that they were hurt and say that’s why you feel horrible: “I feel horrible because I hurt you and I care about you. I just feel so terrible. Is there anything that I can do? Is there anything that you think I could do?”
Thanks, that’s good. I was also thinking of begging.
It’s not usually the first thing to say, but actually asking for forgiveness at a certain point in time is helpful: “Is there any way that you could forgive me?”
In my research, though, the strongest connection I found with forgiveness was emphasizing the importance of the relationship. You don’t just feel horrible about the deed, but you feel horrible because that person was hurt.
It’s not about you. The other person wants to see that other-oriented emotion. That’s what makes remorse different from guilt, and it’s what really predicts forgiveness.
I’m not sure I’m up to it. Could I maybe fake it?
That’s not remorse.
Have you ever had to do this?
The thing is, I’ve been on the other side of it. I’ve been on the forgiving side, and I was wondering what made me make the decision to forgive. I realized that it was partially that the person seemed really torn up about the fact they had hurt me. I thought, “They’re really probably not going to do it again.” A lot of these kinds of thoughts entered my mind because I could see it was sincere.
And when someone wasn’t very remorseful and I could see that they didn’t feel bad about hurting me at all, then I was very cold toward them. I didn’t ever want to have anything to do with them again.
Can it be healthy to feel so bad about something? I bet you felt good forgiving that person, but this is awful.
If you do not feel bad for hurting someone, that’s actually not a good thing. People who don’t feel remorse for hurting someone—we tend to fear them. We think, “This isn’t a good
person to be around.”
From an evolutionary standpoint, remorse is actually a very functional emotion. It can help you get back in the good graces of your group. When you don’t express remorse, you’re a lot more likely to be ostracized. Not to mention that it can help you save or repair important relationships in your life.
Yeah. I guess it wouldn’t hurt to pick up a few gifts.
Well, no, gift giving and doing special favors on their own are negatively related with forgiveness. I found out that you’re less likely to be forgiven when you use those. I wasn’t expecting that one.
The reason a gift falls flat might be that it just looks like you’re going to buy something material that’s going to take away something emotional. It just doesn’t work. People who really feel horrible about hurting someone don’t usually go for buying the gift. They’re going to try to connect on a personal level.
Spending time with the person might help, as long as it shows how much you care and value the relationship, but washing their car doesn’t.
You know, I thought you were going to make me tell you who it was I’d hurt.
The advice would have been the same. In the surveys, I did ask participants to specify if it was a parent, sibling, romantic relationship, close friend, etc. But I did not find any differences based on the nature of the relationship. That is, I did an analysis asking, is this process different if it’s a romantic partner versus a parent, and it wasn’t.
I wonder if it works the same way with strangers. Maybe you could figure out how some people manage to forgive violent criminals. I’m sure you could help a politician through a scandal.
That’s actually my next study. I do think that this process works differently in close relationships. Like I said, the expression of remorse that really predicts forgiveness is the one where you emphasize the importance of the relationship. You have to say that you really care about them, that they’re a special person to you, that you love them, depending on the relationship.
Strangers can also emphasize the relationship but would have to do it in a different way: “We’re all part of the same group,” “We all live on the same planet,” or “I’m sorry I did this, this organization is important to me.” I’m interested to know if those types of expressions have the same effect.
You see pretty negative ratings of public apologies. A lot of people who watch them don’t think the offenders are sincerely remorseful, and I’m interested in why that is. Maybe, in their expression of remorse, the people making those apologies are missing something.