How to Become a More Forgiving Person

Max Phillips

Picture this: you’re walking down the street, and you see a shopper leaving the grocery store with bags full of food. They split, and the produce goes everywhere. Another man walks past, glancing as the shopper scrambles to pick up his food. He doesn’t stop. Why?

If you blame the passer-by, labeling him as self-absorbed and unwilling to help, you may have just made a “fundamental attribution” error, according to Business Insider. Essentially, you immediately lay the blame on a personality basis, instead of a situational one.

In the example I gave, the man might not have stopped to help because he was late for a job interview — not because he’s self-absorbed. The question remains, then. Why do we tend to blame people instead of situations?

The Fundamental Attribution Error

According to Psychology Wikia, countries with a more individualistic culture, such as the United States and Western Europe, are more likely to make the fundamental attribution error. This is in contrast to collectivist nations such as China and Japan. Some traits of individualistic culture include:

  • “I” identity.
  • Promoting individual goals, initiative, and achievement.
  • Individual rights are seen as being the most important. Rules attempt to ensure self-importance and individualism.
  • Independence is valued; there is much less of a drive to help other citizens or communities than in collectivism.
  • Relying or being dependent on others is frequently seen as shameful.
  • People are encouraged to do things on their own; to rely on themselves.

When observing a situation, people from this type of culture may tend to look inwards, assuming it is intentional behavior. Often, they may overlook accidental or situational behavior. In 1965, Edward E. Jones and Victoria Harris attempted to prove the error was real. According to Science ABC, the study claims that we draw on the following sources of information before making an internal attribution:

  • Choice. In the example I gave at the start of the article, you may believe the man walked by and didn’t help out of choice. Irrespective of his situation, you might blame internal factors.
  • Intentional vs. accidental behavior. If someone does something while fully aware of the consequences of their actions, you tend to blame internal factors. When you perceive it as an accident, you blame external factors instead.
  • Social desirability. If you witness non-conforming behavior, then you’re more likely to blame internal behavior. For example, if you saw someone shouting in a library, you’d likely blame their internal behavior before anything else.
  • Personalism. If someone’s actions directly impact you, then you’re more likely to label their behavior as intentional and personal. This is all well and good, but you can’t attribute all bad behavior down to this one error. Sometimes it is personal, sometimes, it isn’t. To be a more forgiving person, you need to be able to understand someone better.

How to Become More Forgiving

Harold Kelley, a psychologist at the University of California, came up with the covariation model in 1973. According to Kelley, you can determine whether someone’s behavior is internal or external using three factors:

  • Distinctiveness; Is this behavior unique to this situation?
  • Consensus: Are others behaving in this same way in this situation?
  • Consistency: Is this typical behavior for this situation and person?

So to be more forgiving, remember those three points before immediately blaming someone’s character. Even after you’ve evaluated the situation and conclude the behavior is internal, that doesn’t mean you should label someone as a jerk or self-absorbed, according to Pennsylvania State University. The university’s blog suggests a more constructive way of dealing with things:

“Instead of labelling people, we should focus on describing their behaviour. Rather than calling someone a jerk, we could say that they responded inappropriately[…]
In the workplace, perhaps we could identify the behaviours that we are wishing to encourage instead of focusing on the behaviours that we want to abolish. Instead of saying “no jerks allowed” we could institute a mandate that requires that employees always respond with kindness. The emphasis would be on promoting positive behaviours instead of labelling people by their behaviours, good or bad.”

That, in essence, is the key to becoming a more forgiving person. Instead of being quick to label behavior, describe it instead. Then, promote positive action. This way, you might be less likely to hold a grudge, which can lead to healthier relationships, improved mental health, and less anxiety, stress, and hostility, according to the Mayo Clinic.

In a broader sense, research by Barbara Frederickson, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina, suggests that a more progressive attitude can cause you to “embrace a wider range of possibility and to motivate us to work toward a better future,” according to the Harvard Business Review. By focusing less on weaknesses as the root of all behavior, instead, focus on the positive. It’ll enable you to grow as a person.


In individualistic cultures, it is easy to label someone as a “jerk” and blame their behavior on internal factors. It makes us quick to create unnecessary rivalries and more likely to commit the “fundamental attribution” error. That being said, it isn’t wholly iron clad. Articles such as this one from Psychology Today dispute its integrity. Even so, it’s hard not to see its applications in everyday life. I know I’ve been guilty of it on numerous occasions.

If there were one lesson I want you to take from this article, it’s this: To be more forgiving, we must move past the immediate blame and assumption of each other’s behavior. Instead, take the time to evaluate, describe, and promote positive behavior. You’ll be better for it.

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