Forgive Them for I Have Sinned: The Relationship Between Guilt and Forgiveness of Others’ Transgressions

Across four studies, guilt led to forgiveness of others’ transgressions. In Study 1, people prone to experience guilt (but not shame) were also prone to forgive others for past misdeeds. In Study 2, we manipulated harm- and inequity-based guilt; both increased forgiveness of others’ transgressions. Further, the effect of guilt on forgiveness was mediated by identification with the transgressor. In Study 3, we replicated the guilt-forgiveness relationship and examined three other plausible mediators: capability for similar wrongdoing, empathic understanding, and general identification; only identification with the transgressor satisfied the criteria for mediation. In Study 4, we induced guilt by asking participants to harm a friend or stranger. Guilt induced by harming a friend led to greater forgiveness of third-party transgressors, and again, identification with the transgressor mediated the effect. We discuss the implications of these results for understanding how the prosocial effects of guilt extend beyond the boundaries of a single interpersonal relationship.