Friends who behave badly are easier to forgive than strangers – but we still feel shame for their sins, study finds

  • Family and friends who behave badly are easier to forgive than strangers – study
  • Experts found people have less anger, contempt and disgust toward loved ones
  • This is because they believe them to be moral and wanted to punish them less
  • But they felt more shame, guilt and embarrassment if loved ones behaved badly

Loved ones who behave badly are easier to forgive than strangers, a new study has found, but we still feel shame for their sins.

Researchers discovered that people experience less anger, contempt and disgust when it is their family or friends who have committed transgressions.

This is because they believe them to be more moral and want to punish them less than strangers, according to the study. 

Scroll down for video

Loved ones who behave badly are easier to forgive than strangers, a new study has found, but we still feel shame for their sins (stock image) 


Separate research has previously found that people are reluctant to believe others are inherently bad, even when they have behaved immorally.

When someone who has behaved badly then does something nice, people will be inclined to forgive any previous misgivings.

This inbuilt forgiveness evolved because dismissing someone entirely based on one bad deed could cause someone to miss out on a slew of benefits from any given social connection, scientists explained.

The 2018 research was conducted by Yale University, the University of Oxford and University College London.

The study found that it is human nature to see the best in someone – and we are predisposed to believe a person who behaves morally is a truly good person. 

However, people felt more shame, guilt and embarrassment when someone close to them behaved unethically, and found themselves doubting their own morality.

‘Our findings suggest that having a close relationship with the transgressor heavily affects responses to their bad behaviour,’ said lead author Rachel Forbes, from the University of Toronto.

‘When someone close to us behaves unethically, we face a conflict between upholding our moral values and maintaining our relationship.’

More than 1,100 people took part in the research, which involved four experiments by the American Psychological Association.  

In one experiment, participants read about a hypothetical situation in which a romantic partner, a close friend or a stranger committed an unethical or immoral act, such as stealing money from a charity collection jar. 

In another participants were asked to recall a moment when they had witnessed a partner, friend or stranger commit an unethical or immoral act. 

The third experiment saw people keep a log of moral transgressions they witnessed each day for 15 days. 

In each case participants answered a series of questions about the person who committed the act, the severity of it and how harshly the transgressor should be punished. 

They were also asked how they felt about themselves, including any negative emotions they experienced and their own sense of morality.

In all three experiments, researchers found participants felt less anger, contempt and disgust toward family and close friends who behaved badly. 

The final experiment saw people paired with a romantic partner, a close friend or a stranger. They were then taken to separate rooms and asked to respond in writing to a series of questions about themselves. 

The pairs then swapped answers and were told to transcribe them into a book. 

In the first instance, participants received genuine answers, but in the second they were given fake responses indicating their partner had behaved unethically by lying, plagiarising or acting selfishly. 

Again they answered questions about their partner, the transgression, how harsh the punishment should be and their feelings about themselves. 

The results were similar to the first three experiments, but the effect was not as strong. 

Researchers think this may be because the unethical information was unknown to the participants prior to the experiment and was first shared with them in a brazen way by a stranger. 

‘It’s possible that participants were upset with their close others because they did not tell the participant about the unethical acts beforehand and instead chose to tell the researcher,’ Forbes said.

‘Hearing about an unethical behaviour by someone you care about from a stranger is likely to be a bit more jarring than hearing about it directly from your friend or loved one.’  

She added: ‘One important limitation in our work is that we did not examine responses to extremely severe immoral actions.

‘Highly immoral acts would certainly place a greater strain on the relationship and therefore could show different effects.’

The study was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.


The big pause: Lying is quite a complex process for the body and brain to deal with. First your brain produces the truth which it then has to suppress before inventing the lie and the performance of that lie. 

This often leads to a longer pause than normal before answering, plus a verbal stalling technique like ‘Why do you ask that?’ rather than a direct and open response.

The eye dart: Humans have more eye expressions than any other animal and our eyes can give away if we’re trying to hide something. 

When we look up to our left to think we’re often accessing recalled memory, but when our eyes roll up to our right we can be thinking more creatively. Also, the guilt of a lie often makes people use an eye contact cut-off gesture, such as looking down or away.

The lost breath: Bending the truth causes an instant stress response in most people, meaning the fight or flight mechanisms are activated. 

The mouth dries, the body sweats more, the pulse rate quickens and the rhythm of the breathing changes to shorter, shallower breaths that can often be both seen and heard.

Overcompensating: A liar will often over-perform, both speaking and gesticulating too much in a bid to be more convincing. These over the top body language rituals can involve too much eye contact (often without blinking!) and over-emphatic gesticulation.

The more someone gesticulates, the more likely it is they might be fibbing (stock image)

The poker face: Although some people prefer to employ the poker face, many assume less is more and almost shut down in terms of movement and eye contact when they’re being economical with the truth.

The face hide: When someone tells a lie they often suffer a strong desire to hide their face from their audience. This can lead to a partial cut-off gesture like the well-know nose touch or mouth-cover.

Self-comfort touches: The stress and discomfort of lying often produces gestures that are aimed at comforting the liar, such as rocking, hair-stroking or twiddling or playing with wedding rings. We all tend to use self-comfort gestures but this will increase dramatically when someone is fibbing.

Micro-gestures: These are very small gestures or facial expressions that can flash across the face so quickly they are difficult to see. Experts will often use filmed footage that is then slowed down to pick up on the true body language response emerging in the middle of the performed lie. 

The best time to spot these in real life is to look for the facial expression that occurs after the liar has finished speaking. The mouth might skew or the eyes roll in an instant give-away.

Heckling hands: The hardest body parts to act with are the hands or feet and liars often struggle to keep them on-message while they lie. 

When the gestures and the words are at odds it’s called incongruent gesticulation and it’s often the hands or feet that are telling the truth.

Source: Read Full Article