This project investigates the social factors that encourage individuals to pursue either forgiveness or revenge. Vengeful behavior harms relationships and careers, and invites retaliation or legal sanctions. Forgiveness avoids these risks, but can instead make the forgiver vulnerable to exploitation. Understanding why people pursue forgiveness or revenge is an important scientific puzzle and a pressing practical concern. To answer this question, the project investigates the conditions under which forgiveness or revenge will be valued and rewarded in groups. The project contributes to understanding society by developing an explanation for how forgiving and vengeful behaviors shape individuals' social standing in groups, and testing this explanation with rigorous methods. The research combines a nationally representative survey on Americans' attitudes towards forgiveness and revenge with laboratory experiments that examines how people behave when they observe forgiving or vengeful behavior, as well as why people engage in these behaviors themselves. Given the ubiquity of conflict, the costs of revenge, and the challenges of forgiveness, the research may have a number of broader impacts. Broadly, the project speaks to conflicts around issues such as contentious politics, fan violence, and national identity. By explaining why some groups will value revenge or forgiveness, the research could help us understand why some conflicts are resolved quickly (when disputants choose forgiveness) while others spiral out of control (when disputants choose revenge). By achieving these goals, the research can help point us towards more effective conflict resolution strategies. The research also contributes to the training of graduate and undergraduate students.
Past work in understanding revenge and forgiveness focuses on micro- or macro-level factors, leading sociologists to call for greater attention to meso-level factors, such as intra and intergroup processes. Responding to this call, the project develops and tests hypotheses centered on the idea that, under certain conditions, acts of forgiveness or revenge produce group benefits, and as a result are viewed as worthy of social status -- respect, prestige, and esteem -- from group members. The project also investigates whether groups tend to view forgiveness versus revenge as relatively more status-worthy, and how groups influence individuals to engage in forgiving or vengeful behaviors. To answer these questions, the project employs a survey experiment and two behavioral lab experiments. The survey experiment (Study 1) uses a nationally representative sample of US adults to examine the conditions under which Americans view revenge or forgiveness as worthy of social status. It does so for three different social contexts: politics, sports, and national identity. The lab experiments will complement the survey experiment by using a behavioral measure of social status (Study 2) and evaluating whether individuals engage in more vengeful or forgiving behavior when their groups have a history of rewarding these behaviors with social status (Study 3). By combining nationally-representative survey data (including three conceptual replications with different social identities) with behavioral lab experiments, the design strengthens both the external and internal validity of our findings.
Funding for this study was provided by the National Science Foundation Division of Social and Economic Sciences (Award #1728889) and the College of Arts and Sciences at Indiana University.