An evolutionary perspective on forgiveness

Joseph Billingsley, Jeni L. Burnette, Michael E. McCullough

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

2 Scopus citations


We present an evolutionary perspective on forgiveness that conceptualizes forgiveness as the output of psychological mechanisms that evolved to help solve the ancestrally recurrent adaptive problem of exploitation. Appealing to principles of good design, evolution-minded researchers suggest that the cognitive mechanisms that execute forgiveness should draw heavily upon two internal representations-representations of the transgressor’s relationship value and representations of the transgressor’s exploitation risk. Our review of research that examines the hypothesized role of these variables in forgiveness reveals three insights. First, perceived relationship value is a consistent predictor of forgiveness, with empirical support emerging largely irrespective of differences in study design, methodology, sample, or measurement. Second, growing evidence suggests that relationship value plays a causal role in forgiveness. Third, there is an emerging consensus that perceived exploitation risk, at least as it has been measured so far, plays a less important role than relationship value in people’s decisions about forgiveness. Empirical studies have produced mixed evidence for the previously tendered hypothesis that relationship value more strongly influences forgiveness when the transgressor is perceived to pose little exploitation risk. Whether these inconsistent results are due to methodological differences, cultural differences, or other factors remains unclear. We conclude by forging conceptual links between the evolutionary approach to forgiveness and two other prominent models of forgiveness: the stress-and-coping model and the interdependence model.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationHandbook of Forgiveness
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages11
ISBN (Electronic)9781351123334
ISBN (Print)9780815357988
StatePublished - Jan 1 2019

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychology(all)


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