Many trials, civil and criminal, depend on whether jurors can forgive a defendant. A recent study suggests that women forgive more easily than men -- but more importantly suggests which arguments might best convince men to forgive.
The article is "Not so Innocent: Does Seeing One's Own Capability for Wrongdoing Predict Forgiveness?" by Case Western Reserve University psychologist Julie Juola Exline, with Florida State's Roy Baumeister and Anne Zell, Arizona State's Amy Kraft,and Hope College's Charlotte Witvliet. It's in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, a journal cited often here. The press release is good, so I'll let it explain:
Forgiveness can be a powerful means to healing, but it does not come naturally for both sexes. Men have a harder time forgiving than women do, according to Case Western Reserve University psychologist Julie Juola Exline. But that can change if men develop empathy toward an offender by seeing they may also be capable of similar actions. Then the gender gap closes, and men become less vengeful.
In seven forgiveness-related studies Exline conducted between 1998 through 2005 with more than 1,400 college students, gender differences between men and women consistently emerged. When asked to recall offenses they had committed personally, men became less vengeful toward people who had offended them. Women reflecting on personal offenses, and beginning at a lower baseline for vengeance, exhibited no differences in levels of unforgiving. When women had to recall a similar offense in relation to the other's offense, women felt guilty and tended to magnify the other's offense.
"We actually got aggravated"
Many studies confirm the researchers' hypotheses, but not this one. The press release continues:
"The gender difference is not anything that we predicted. We actually got aggravated, because we kept getting it over and over again in our studies," said Exline. "We kept trying to explain it away, but it kept repeating in the experiments."
There but for the grace
What transcended gender in the study was whether the subjects could see themselves as capable of doing something like what the offender did -- a reaction the researchers invoked in men by asking subjects to remember their own transgressions, or in the case of political offenses, those of their own government.
The researchers found that people of both genders are more forgiving when they see themselves as capable of committing a similar action to the offender's; it tends to make the offense seem smaller. Seeing capability also increases empathic understanding of the offense and causes people to feel more similar to the offenders. Each of these factors, in turn, predicts more forgiving attitudes. "Offenses are easier to forgive to the extent that they seem small and understandable and when we see ourselves as similar or close to the offender," [Exline] said.
Exline found this ability to identify with the offender and forgive also happens in intergroup conflicts in a study that she related to forgiveness of the 9/11 terrorists.
"When people could envision their own government committing acts similar to those of the terrorists, they were less vengeful," she stressed. "For example, they were less likely to believe that perpetrators should be killed on the spot or given the death penalty, and they were more supportive of negotiations and economic aid."
Women, on the other hand, were actually more forgiving before they recalled their own transgressions; it was as though they transferred their own guilt to the offender.
More on forgiveness
Exline's study doesn't address a related and important question: which men, and which women, are more likely to forgive than others. For that, you might start with Michael E. McCullough's 2001 paper "Forgiveness: Who Does It and How Do They Do It?", in Current Directions in Psychological Science and available here for a fee. The abstract says:
People who are inclined to forgive their transgressors tend to be more agreeable, more emotionally stable, and, some research suggests, more spiritually or religiously inclined than people who do not tend to forgive their transgressors.
(Image by Windy Angels at http://www.flickr.com/photos/windyangels/1571206885/; license details there.)