A show we’re working on features psychologist Michael McCullough. He wrote a book about the evolutionary psychology behind the behaviors of forgiveness and revenge, and how that affects everyone from primates to politicians (huge gap, I know). He says we need to understand those origins in order to better serve our moral institutions today. Above is a clip from the rough cut of the show that makes the animal kingdom sound like The Godfather.

McCullough is a Ph.D. at the University of Miami in the departments of Psychology and Religious Studies. His many scientific papers focus on forgiveness and revenge, gratitude, and religious development in people’s lives. Some introductory ones:

He recently wrote something for The Huffington Post on the virtue of forgiveness — timely wisdom for the future president of the U.S., whoever that may end up being. “The ability to control revenge and broker forgiveness among groups in conflict is a crucial, though underappreciated, element of statecraft.”

The show should be online and on the air in two weeks.

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Forgiveness and the ability to forgive has long been a subject of interest to me. It is interesting to look at the personality traits of people who are more inclined to forgive than others, as your guest does in the article cited in your post. But I think that forgiveness is not generally something that comes easily to any human, regardless of personality inclinations. It is something that needs to be worked on; one needs to make the choice and then actively work at it. Granted, it may be easier for some people to recognize and opt to make that choice than it is for others, but I think it does not come naturally.

Many years ago I participated in a workshop on "Active Forgiveness". It transformed my life at the time and, although I no longer remember any of the specific content details, the concept has stayed with me all this time. The premise of the discussion was that one must actively engage in the process of forgiveness. It is not something that comes naturally, regardless of the nature of the transgression, transgressor and/or victim. But the effort will be worth it in the end. Simply put - it is not easy to forgive, but if you actively and honestly make the effort you will be rewarded.

In my own life I have found this to be true. When I make the conscious effort to acknowledge the need for and then actively work at forgiving, I am indeed rewarded, often in unanticipated and unexpected ways. Sometimes it is a daily choice that needs to be made over and over again. Similarly, if I don't take these steps I suffer consequences.

Although I consider myself to be a spiritual person, I am not a part of any religious group and do not consider myself to be religious. But I have often been baffled by the lack of focus on forgiveness among many people who claim to be religious. To me it is one of the central tenets of the teachings of all of the most prominent religious prophets throughout the ages.

From a researcher's standpoint, I can understand why it would be useful to know if there are people who because of their personality traits are, perhaps, constitutionally incapable of forgiving. Is it something that can be taught? There is a researcher in Boston who teaches a course on forgiveness to inmates in a local prison. Perhaps this type of effort could/should be expanded. Seems like it couldn't hurt!

Anyway, I am eagerly looking forward to this program!

Peg, I think you'll enjoy the program, although McCullough does take a quite different tack, in that through his research, he's actually arguing that our social bias (if you can call it that) to consider forgiveness something difficult is perhaps over-emphasized. If we keep calling it difficult, then we make it so, we turn that into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What he's ultimately saying, I think, is that it's a daily choice, like you said. There are everyday acts that, if we build on them, can lead us to be more gracious overall. Maybe that exceeds what we label "forgiveness," but our definition of forgiveness is something he's keen on challenging.

Shiraz - thanks for your response. I will wait for the program before commenting further. I do want to mention, though, that I LOVE the podcasts. Gives me an opportunity to re-listen to each program. I find that I pick up new things each time I listen. I live in a rural area where radio reception is unreliable - especially when walking in the woods as I like to do when listening. So I truly appreciate being able to download the podcast and listen static-free whenever I like. Thanks for this great service!

Peg, I myself started listening to SoF through the podcast, as we didn't get the show up in Montreal. Well, there was a faint signal coming across the border from Vermont, I think, which I'd only hear in other people's cars (never mine for some reason). So I <3 Internet.

Oddly, working at a large radio station, I never get to listen to the radio...

We've had some programming changes and that program is now slated for the first week of October. We're in production but we're moving a few things around to respond to events in the news.