The Forgiveness Instinct and Transformative Mediation

Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation by Dan Simon

The capacity for forgiveness runs deep in our genes, according to Michael McCullough, Ph.D, professor of psychology at the University of Miami.  In his article “The Forgiveness Instinct”, available here, he lists three essential truths that help explain our potential to achieve peace.  His perspective is consistent with the transformative theory of conflict, which acknowledges that as humans we have both the tendency to get caught in a destructive conflict cycle and the capacity to emerge from it and behave with strength and responsiveness.  

According to McCullough:
“1) The desire for revenge is a built-in feature of human nature.”  McCullough hypothesizes that revenge served the evolutionary function of deterring aggressive behavior. So while the revenge instinct tended to decrease aggressive behavior in the group, that instinct continued to be passed on to future generations. That tendency to want revenge fits with transformative theory’s description of the destructive conflict cycle.  It’s human nature, under certain circumstances, to behave in ways that involve demonizing and seeking to harm the person we feel has harmed us.

“2) The capacity for forgiveness is a built-in feature of human nature.”  McCullough says that in a study of 60 different societies from around the world, 93% of them showed signs of forgiveness, reconciliation or both being documented phenomena in the culture.  That pervasive tendency among humans fits with transformative theory’s premises that people have the capacity and the preference to get to a better place, to get out of the mutual revenge cycle.

“3) To make the world a more forgiving, less vengeful place, don’t try to change human nature—change the world!”  McCullough asserts that since both revenge and forgiveness are part of human nature, the path toward more peace is not about teaching people to be different, but it’s about creating systems that allow forgiveness to emerge.  This point fits with our practice as transformative mediators not to try to get our clients to forgive each other, but to provide pure support for them, which often allows the forgiveness instinct to take effect.

McCullough’s article is consistent with the growing body of research that shows many ways in which constructive human interaction, including cooperation, generosity, empathy, forgiveness, and reconciliation are natural, central parts of the human condition.


Dan Simon

Dan is a leader in the field of transformative mediation. He is the author of the chapter on divorce mediation in the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation's ("ISCT") TRANSFORMATIVE MEDIATION SOURCEBOOK. He is a Past Chair of the Minnesota State Bar Association's Alternative Dispute Resolution Section. He served… MORE >

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