Tag Archives: reconcilliantion

Cake or Death? Forgiveness & Revenge as Evolutionary Bedfellows

Cake and forgiveness?


Death and revenge?

What will it be and how do I choose and, by the way, why are these two such intimate strangers?

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As someone dedicated to researching and studying what makes for great relationships, I’ve come up with a list of 12 skills that are key. The first ten I’ve already written about and while they may be tough to explain and tougher to embody – I’ve captured more or less what I wanted to say. However, I’m really struggling with Number 11.

So, here’s a summary of the twelve skills. I maintain that you’ll enjoy great relationships to the extent you  ~

    1. Recognize and get curious about the fact there’s not just one “you;”
    2. Get some self-mastery going so you can choose which “you” shows up; i.e, respond, don’t react;
    3. Appreciate your partner is on this same journey of self discovery and self mastery – in other words, you are both “works-in-progress” so lighten up already;
    4. Work on your conversational chops and speak from your heart when possible;
    5. Really listen and get curious about what your partner is trying to tell you;
    6. Show up with empathy;
    7. Practice kindness – a lot;
    8. Negotiate how to get your needs met without selling yourself or your partner short;
    9. Become trusting and trustworthy;
    10. Use times of friction between you to grow closer – not father apart;
    11. Transform forgiveness into gratitude;
    12. Know when and how to let go.

Maybe you’re already thinking “Duh – what does she mean by “transform forgiveness into gratitude… no wonder she’s stuck!” And you have a point. So – being honest here –  the three essays I’m posting on forgiveness will be very much works-in-progress.

Here’s the general flow:

  • November 4th – Cake or Death? Forgiveness & Revenge as Evolutionary Bedfellows
  • November 11th – Choosing Forgiveness Today.
  • November 18th – The forgiveness challenge.
  • November 25th – Something different for Thanksgiving.

So onward –

Cake or Death

If this is your first introduction to Eddie Izzard you may be scratching your head. Finding it works better for me to seek forgiveness than permission (to coin another phrase I love) I went with his metaphor for this article.

I’m indebted to Michael McCullough, Ph.D whose work informed this blog post. You’ll find more in his book Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct. Published in 2008 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

OK – revenge!

Ever felt it? Not the noblest experience is it and it sure can consume one.

Fortunately for me I’m blessed by two things which make my experience of revenge rather lackluster.

First I’ve a dreadful memory and while I’m sure I’ve hatched all sorts of evil painful plans to take revenge on nasty people in my life, I can think of only one.

Second, this one person was neither my relative nor spouse. In fact he was very little in my life, so the impact of his unkindness didn’t touch me nearly as viscerally as the wounds I witness in my therapy office as warring divorced or divorcing partners wrestle with enormous feelings of revenge and rage at the injustices they’ve endured.

However, while this one person in my life was in the midst of being a total toad I found myself sinking into all sorts of vengeful fantasies having to do with hoping he’d choke on his food, crash his car, lose his fortune, and other ignoble nastinesses of which I’m not at all proud.

The redeeming news for me in the face of my base fantasies of “Death!” (and for anyone else who has felt that hot knife of vengeance) rests in the first of McCullough’s three truths.

Truth #1: The desire for revenge is a built-in feature of human nature

“ the desire for revenge is normal—normal in the sense that every neurologically intact human being on the planet has the biological hardware for it.

The evidence McCullough cites to support this claim is compelling.

When evolutionary biologists Martin Daly and Margo Wilson looked at data on 60 different societies from around the world, they tried to determine how many of those societies showed evidence of blood feuds, capital punishment, or the desire for blood revenge. They found that 57 of the 60 societies they examined—95 percent—had “some reference to blood feud or capital punishment as an institutionalized practice, or specific accounts of particular cases or, at the least, some articulate expression of the desire for blood revenge.”

And he concludes, “When a behavior is this universal, that suggests it’s not just the product of particular cultures or social factors. Instead, it’s essential to what it means to be human.

So I’m a low life, but a very human low life.

Since Michael McCullough is Director of the Evolution and Human Behavior Laboratory in the Department of Psychology at the University of Miami, he asks himself why this particular trait has survived the evolutionary journey.

Three reasons:

  1. Revenge as deterrent. Remember, early humans were tribal so usually in the company of one another. If Og thwacked Zog and Zog took forceful revenge, folks might remember his fierce response and for sure Zog would not look like a coward. Even today studies have shown that “when two men have an argument on the street, the mere presence of a third person doubles the likelihood that the encounter will escalate from an exchange of words to an exchange of blows.”
  1. Revenge as punishment. If a member of the group behaved badly the worst thing would be to ostracize him or her. Just shy of that is to make bullying unprofitable so a good walloping back served to keep the member in the group but teach them – essentially – that crime does not pay.
  1. Revenge as “free-rider” prevention. Every group runs the risk of having free-loaders who want the benefits of the group without the effort. Knowing there would be dire consequences for non-cooperation may have served this purpose.

So, what about forgiveness?

Ever felt it? How did you feel?

Much better I expect. There’s a largess, a spaciousness and an inner freedom that flows when we forgive someone.

Often people who have been hurt by the person they love most in the world are anxious to move quickly to forgiveness. They hate sitting in judgment or revenge. It feels dreadful.

Nice of them?

Yes – but also hardwired into their biology as identified by the second of McCullough’s three truths.

Truth #2: The capacity for forgiveness is a built-in feature of human nature

According to McCullough, there is evidence that forgiveness is just as universal among humans as is revenge. His analysis of the same societies that reportedly had 95% blood revenge shows evidence of forgiveness and reconciliation 93 percent of the time. And that remaining 7%? I quote:

“Evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson has observed that “it is actually difficult to find descriptions of forgiveness in hunter-gatherer societies, not because forgiveness is absent but because it happens so naturally that it often goes unnoticed.” I think Wilson may be correct, and not just about hunter-gatherers but about all societies. Forgiveness and reconciliation may be so common and so taken for granted by anthropologists as to be regarded, quite literally, as nothing to write home about.”

Plus – animals forgive.

Researchers studying patterns of aggression and friendliness in chimps noted that of 350 aggressive encounters, only 14% were preceded by friendly contact, whereas 51% were followed by friendly contact.

The bonobo, mountain gorilla, goats, sheep, dolphins, hyenas and some non-mammalian species all have conciliatory behaviors.

Maybe the Ronettes were right and for all of us critters, “the best part of breaking up is when you’re making up.”

Screen shot 2015-11-02 at 5.15.48 PMWhat about my cat?” You wonder.

No deal.

I quote: “Of the half-dozen or so non-primates that have been studied, only domestic cats have failed to demonstrate a conciliatory tendency.”

So, cats aside, why do we creatures forgive if there’s a danger we’ll look weak or encourage crime or free-riders?

Why offer “Cake?” when some other part of you is (or recently was) thinking “Death!”

Having sifted through the theories of several evolutionary biologists McCullough puts his money on the “valuable relationship” hypothesis.

I quote again:

It goes like this: Animals reconcile because it repairs important relationships that have been damaged by aggression. By forgiving and repairing relationships, our ancestors were in a better position to glean the benefits of cooperation between group members—which, in turn, increased their evolutionary fitness.”

There’s more and I’d invite you to enjoy this longer article . But – this gives you the idea.

OK – it doesn’t take a professor to step back for a moment and observe something along the lines of; Well – if we’ve all got the genetic software for both revenge and forgiveness how come societies look so different? How come we have ardent fundamentalists lopping off hands and heads and people holding onto grudges and feuds for generations, while others of our human cousins seek to forgive extraordinary acts of cruelty like the Holocaust or Apartheid?

What are the social conditions that give rise to Cake thinking versus Death thinking?

Or, to bring it into the personal, how does this play out with Og and Zog’s descendants in the  intimate battle ground of the modern family? Is our rage against our partner, as well as our capacity to forgive, still about discouraging hostility, bad behavior and free-riding while encouraging the conditions for peaceful cooperation?

Come back next week!

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This is the latest article in a year-long series on the “12-most-important-relationship-skills-no-one-ever-taught-me-in-school-but-I-sure-wish-they-had.”

Click the box for the full list.  →Top 12 Relationship Skills

If you’re interested in reading this blog in sequence, below are links to the series to date, beginning with the first posting at the top.



SKILL ONE ~ Recognize (and get to know) the many “yous.”

SKILL TWO ~ Learn how to be pro-active: choose how y’all show up.

SKILL THREE ~ Accept (and get curious about) other peoples’ complexity


SKILL FOUR ~ Master the Art of Conversation

SKILL FIVE ~ Learn How To Listen With Your Whole Self

SKILL SIX ~ Crack The Empathy Nut

SKILL SEVEN ~ Practice Kindness

SKILL EIGHT ~ Negotiate with a Win-Win Mentality


SKILL NINE ~ Build (or rebuild) trust.

 SKILL TEN ~ Apologize & “Do Over” When You’ve Blown It

SKILL ELEVEN ~ Forgive and Move On When They’ve Blown It

  • Cake or Death? Forgiveness & Revenge as Evolutionary Bedfellows