The neural systems of forgiveness: An evolutionary psychological perspective

Joseph Billingsley, Elizabeth A.R. Losin

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

25 Scopus citations


Evolution-minded researchers posit that the suite of human cognitive adaptations may include forgiveness systems. According to these researchers, forgiveness systems regulate interpersonal motivation toward a transgressor in the wake of harm by weighing multiple factors that influence both the potential gains of future interaction with the transgressor and the likelihood of future harm. Although behavioral research generally supports this evolutionary model of forgiveness, the model's claims have not been examined with available neuroscience specifically in mind, nor has recent neuroscientific research on forgiveness generally considered the evolutionary literature. The current review aims to help bridge this gap by using evolutionary psychology and cognitive neuroscience to mutually inform and interrogate one another. We briefly summarize the evolutionary research on forgiveness, then review recent neuroscientific findings on forgiveness in light of the evolutionary model. We emphasize neuroscientific research that links desire for vengeance to reward-based areas of the brain, that singles out prefrontal areas likely associated with inhibition of vengeful feelings, and that correlates the activity of a theory-of-mind network with assessments of the intentions and blameworthiness of those who commit harm. In addition, we identify gaps in the existing neuroscientific literature, and propose future research directions that might address them, at least in part.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number737
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
Issue numberMAY
StatePublished - May 10 2017

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Psychology

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