Conciliatory gestures, such as an apology or offer of compensation, were shown to reduce anger and promote forgiveness after a conflict. This may seem like common sense to many but a little reminder and evidence from a scientific study may be good encouragement to gather the courage to say “I’m sorry” during a quarrel.
Researchers in the Department of Psychology at the University of Miami and the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior at the University of Minnesota performed the study, which was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Michael McCullough was the lead scientist in the study.
The study on the effect of conciliatory gestures during conflict was carried out in the context of evolutionary theory. The study was designed with the idea that natural selection likely endowed humans with cognitive behaviors that motivated reconciliation with people they had conflicts with but were thought of as valuable and non-threatening. McCullough has stated that evolution has not designed people to be mean, selfish and violent (completely) because they need relationship partners. Natural selection has provided tools for humans to restore important relationships.
A total of 356 young men and women participated in the study. The subjects filled out questionnaires and participated in an eight minute interview with the researchers regarding conflicts they have had with people they thought harmed them. They explicitly expressed their feelings about the conflict. The participants were also asked to prepare a short speech about the conflict and the person committing the transgression. The speech was given in front of a video camera. The last step in the study was for the participants to complete a 21 day online survey to indicate their level of forgiveness for the transgression. Some of the statements that were included in the survey that the subjects could check off were “I’m going to get even,” or “I’m trying to keep as much distance between us as possible.”
The results of the study showed that the extent to which someone engaging in conflict offered conciliatory gestures was directly proportional to the extent to which the “victims” forgave the agressors over time. Conciliatory gestures were also shown to help the victim see the aggressor in a better light. Offering an apology, offering compensation for wrongful actions and owning up to one’s responsibility in the situation were shown to be the conciliatory gestures that brought about the desired result.
An implication of the study is that human psychology is set up for conflict resolution and restoring valuable relationships. The key motivation in offering conciliatory gestures was to see the other person as a valuable relationship partner and helping the other person feel they were at less risk of getting hurt again. The authors of the study report suggested that use of conciliatory gestures is also seen in animals, particularly mammals. This lends support to conciliatory gestures being a trait that comes from natural selection. The researchers also suggested that they would like to see if it is possible to build a culture of forgiveness experimentally. This is one of the aims of future research on how conciliatory gestures reduce anger and promote forgiveness.
By Margaret Lutze