Why do some individuals find it difficult to forgive those who have wronged them? New research published in Personality and Individual Differences sheds light on this question, revealing that so-called “dark” traits can play a significant role. The findings suggest that Machiavellianism and psychopathy may hinder forgiveness by fostering vengeful thoughts.
Forgiveness is a complex and deeply personal process. It involves letting go of negative feelings, thoughts, and behaviors towards someone who has caused harm. While some people readily forgive, others find it challenging to move past feelings of anger and resentment.
Previous research has explored various factors influencing forgiveness, such as empathy, personality traits, and emotional regulation. However, this study delved into the intriguing world of dark personality traits – specifically, Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy – to understand their impact on the forgiveness process.
Machiavellianism is a personality trait characterized by manipulativeness, cunning, and a willingness to deceive or exploit others to achieve personal goals, while narcissism refers to a personality trait marked by excessive self-importance, a constant need for admiration, and a lack of empathy for others. Psychopathy is a personality disorder characterized by traits such as a lack of remorse, impulsivity, and a tendency toward antisocial behavior.
“Two decades have passed since Paulhus and Williams introduced the so-called ‘Dark Triad’ construct comprising three socially aversive personality traits: Machiavellianism, psychopathy and narcissism,” explained study author Boban Nedeljković, a PhD candidate at the University of Belgrade, a member of the Laboratory for Research of Individual Differences, and a research assistant at the Institute of Economics Sciences.
“Since then, a remarkable body of knowledge has accumulated, and numerous studies have explained how these traits relate to many phenomena, including forgiveness. However, the knowledge about the mechanism that underlies the negative association between the Dark Triad and forgiveness is still limited. That is why we aimed to explore whether anger rumination could be one of the factors that would help us understand such a connection.”
For their study, the researchers recruited 629 participants from the general population, ranging in age from 18 to 73 years, with an average age of 30.23. This diverse group included individuals from urban and rural areas, with varying levels of education. To ensure a representative sample, the researchers used sex and age quotas, meaning they aimed for a balanced distribution across different age groups and genders.
To assess Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy, the researchers used the Short Dark Triad (SD3) questionnaire, which asked participants to rate their agreement with statements related to these personality characteristics. For example, some statements evaluated Machiavellianism by assessing participants’ tendencies to use manipulation to achieve their goals.
In addition to personality traits, the study examined anger rumination, a process where individuals repeatedly think about and dwell on their experiences of anger. To measure anger rumination, the researchers employed the Anger Rumination Scale (ARS), which included statements like “I ruminate about my past anger experiences” and “I have difficulty forgiving people who have hurt me.”
To complete the picture, the study also considered forgiveness itself. They used the Forgiveness Scale (FS), which included statements related to both the absence of negative thoughts and feelings (e.g., “I have been able to let go of my anger toward the person who wronged me”) and the presence of positive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors toward a wrongdoer (e.g., “I wish for good things to happen to the person who wronged me”).
Machiavellianism and psychopathy showed positive correlations with all dimensions of anger rumination. In simpler terms, individuals with higher levels of these dark traits were more likely to ruminate about their anger. In contrast, narcissism had weak or no significant correlations with anger rumination. This means that narcissism was less closely linked to dwelling on anger.
Machiavellianism and psychopathy were negatively related to both aspects of forgiveness – the absence of negative thoughts and the presence of positive attitudes toward the wrongdoer. In essence, individuals high in Machiavellianism and psychopathy found it harder to let go of negative feelings and had more difficulty adopting benevolent attitudes. Narcissism showed weak or no significant associations with forgiveness.
The researchers conducted a mediation analysis to understand whether anger rumination might account for the relationship between dark personality traits and forgiveness. Angry afterthoughts, angry memories, and thoughts of revenge were found to be significant mediators of the relationship between Machiavellianism and psychopathy with the absence of negative forgiveness. This means that individuals high in these dark traits tended to ruminate about their anger, leading to a lack of forgiveness, especially in the form of harboring negative thoughts and feelings.
Thoughts of revenge were particularly important, fully mediating the relationship between Machiavellianism and psychopathy and the absence of negative forgiveness. Thoughts of revenge also fully mediated the relationship between these dark traits and the presence of positive forgiveness. In simple terms, individuals with high levels of Machiavellianism and psychopathy were more likely to wish harm upon those who wronged them and less likely to have benevolent thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
“It is important to understand how anger rumination works,” Nedeljković told PsyPost. “The feeling of anger naturally occurs when an individual is harmed by someone and perceives such an experience as injustice. However, if people are high in Machiavellianism and psychopathy, their anger is likely to be prolonged instead of decreasing. This happens because of their tendency to ruminate about past events that triggered their anger. Angry memories repeatedly come to mind, and they contemplate revenge as a means to resolve the situation and achieve justice. Consequently, this impedes the forgiveness process.”
But the study, like all research, includes some caveats. The research relied on self-report measures, which may not capture all aspects of forgiveness accurately. Additionally, the study focused on anger rumination and may not fully account for emotional aspects of anger. Future research could explore these aspects more comprehensively.
“Our study has no critical shortcomings, either methodological or conceptual,” Nedeljković said. “Still, it has some limitations for concluding causality because we used a cross-sectional design, and our findings are based solely on self-report data. Also, some of the factors, not included in our study, could influence the relationships we found. For instance, the type of relationship and relationship closeness between individuals and those who did some harm to them. Anyhow, our study could be seen as a good starting point in exploring the complexity of relationships between the Dark Triad, forgiveness, and anger rumination.”
“I would be extremely happy to see other researchers try to replicate our findings by applying the same instruments to their populations,” Nedeljković added. “Our study was based on data from Serbia, a European country. I want to outline here that forgiveness could be influenced not only by individual differences in personality but also by some cultural differences. That makes me wonder whether these relationships might differ in collectivistic and individualistic cultures, which foster different aspects of behavior and relationships, such as group harmony and social cohesion, in contrast to personal autonomy, growth, and individual rights.”
The study, “The dark triad and forgiveness: The mediating role of anger rumination“, was authored by Boban Nedeljković, Bojana Dinić, and Lana Tucaković.