Do You Forgive Easily?

Ana Sandoiu recently published an article describing the light that neuroscience sheds on how we are able to forgive. Many of us make moral judgments on a daily basis judging an incredibly complex situation such as, “did the perpetrator really mean to do those awful things.” How does our brain process it when we know that whoever caused the harm, did so unintentionally? There is now new research that investigates the neuroanatomical basis of forgiveness.

The study examines the role of the brain area called the anterior superior temporal sulcus (aSTS) in forgiving those who make unintentional mistakes. Researchers led by Giorgia Silani from the University of Vienna in Austria carried out in collaboration with other scientists the findings that were published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Making a mature moral judgment about a wrongful act involves considering the damage done and also the perpetrator’s intention and mental state. The intention seems to take precedence over the result of the action when there is a clear contradiction between the two.

The researchers have studied the neuroanatomical basis of forgiveness using 50 participants to complete a moral judgment task. They were presented with 36 unique stories and four potential outcomes for each. They were comprised of some background information, a foreshadowing segment, information on the neutral or intentionally harmful mental state and the consequence, which revealed the agent’s action and the resulting outcome. They each read the stories and were asked to give their moral judgments by answering these questions of “acceptability” and “blame.” Their brain activity was then analyzed using voxel-based morphometry and neuroimaging.

Those with a more developed aSTS are more inclined to forgive, according to the results. The greater the gray matter volume, the less accidental harm-doers are condemned. The aSTS was already known to be involved in the ability to represent the mental states.

This study opens new avenues for neuroscientific research and further studies are recommended to use more realistic content to study moral judgments as well as a more demographically diverse study sample.

Do I forgive easily? I tend to let things hurt me deeply when I’m wronged by someone, so this is probably hard for me. Of course, if it involves my child or grandchild, it becomes even harder if they are the ones that were wronged. I have to work on myself daily.

Dr Fredda Branyon