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Why Betrayal Is So Devastating

Betrayal, outrage, guilt, and forgiveness as the four horsemen of morality.

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The story of Julius Caesar’s death is famously tragic. In a sense, the fact that he was stabbed in the back and was necessarily (and momentarily) going to die was actually not the worst of it. Caesar’s death is famous as the prototypical act of betrayal in the human experience.

The standard story is that Caesar was stabbed to death by his (ostensible) best friend, Brutus. This monumental betrayal is, in fact, from a human perspective, perhaps the worst of what transpired that day.

Why Is Betrayal So Hurtful?

In modern contexts, many of us live in large-scale communities. If you live in Manhattan, for instance, you are surrounded by millions of others on the same island. These days, you could certainly shop around for other friends, romantic partners, and social contacts.

But, as addressed in Positive Evolutionary Psychology: Darwin’s Guide to Living a Richer Life (Geher & Wedberg, 2020), when it comes to our social psychology, our minds are riddled with ancestral adaptations and processes that evolved under social conditions that are, in many ways, very different from our large-scale modern worlds.

Before the Neolithic revolution, which took place a mere (in terms of organic evolution) 10,000 years ago, all humans were nomads, living in small clans surrounded by kin and by others whom they would see repeatedly across their lifetimes. Our minds didn’t evolve under conditions in which we co-existed with strangers. And small-scale ancestral groups were, for practical reasons, capped at about 150 (see Dunbar, 1993).

Under such small-scale conditions, in which people evolved to form trusting and cooperative bonds with one another (see Trivers, 1985), the loss of the trust of someone perceived to be close would have had devastating consequences. Under such conditions, a fully severed relationship from a close friend, relative, or romantic partner could have, quite literally, life-threatening consequences. And human moral psychology evolved under these kinds of social conditions.

Based on Trivers’ (1985) model of the evolution of human moral emotions, moral emotions evolved to help people stay connected to others in a world where betrayal and other forms of social transgressions had potentially devastating consequences.

The Four Horsemen of the Human Moral Experience

At the recent (2020) Heterodox Psychology Conference in Orange, CA, our team, led by the fearless Amelia De Jesus, presented a model of forgiveness rooted in the evolutionary reasoning described herein. In this model, we see forgiveness as a powerful social-emotional process that has the capacity to keep people connected on the heels of some sort of betrayal or social transgression.

As we see it, the path to forgiveness (which, by the way, is the fourth of the four horsemen in this model) is not an easy one. Under ancestral conditions, someone who automatically forgave others for transgressions that had the capacity to cause damage to oneself or one’s family would have been at a disadvantage because he or she could be easily exploited for the gain of others. In our model, we refer to such automatic forgiveness as “Divine Forgiveness,” thinking that really only a true saint could be capable of such forgiveness.

The four horsemen that we refer to, which potentially lead to genuine forgiveness, are as follows:

  • Betrayal, which is the catalyst that begins the process that would create a potential need for forgiveness.
  • Outrage from the victim, which is anger that is partly expressed outwardly, which functions to call out the transgressor and to lobby support for the victim.
  • Guilt in the offender, which functions to demonstrate, via emotional and behavioral means, such as genuine apologetic behaviors, that the offender is truly sorry and that he or she can be trusted into the future.
  • Forgiveness by the victim, which, if genuine, has the capacity to repair broken social connections that were affected by the betrayal.

When Guilt Is Lacking

Let’s face it, not everyone who has been betrayed by someone close to them moves toward a path of forgiveness. Some might see certain actions, for instance, as simply not forgivable.

Further, according to the four horsemen model, an offender may simply not feel (or demonstrate) guilt. Perhaps the offender betrayed the victim due to some kind of long-standing hostility toward the victim. In such a case, spite may actually end up being more dominant than guilt. Sort of like “Yeah, I did that. And you deserved it!” When spite presents more than guilt does, forgiveness is highly unlikely.

Similarly, an offender might experience more shame than guilt. While shame and guilt share many features, guilt is much more focused on one truly feeling badly about what he or she has done. Shame focuses more on one’s concern about being seen in a negative light by others. A shameful response would be more like, “I do feel bad. But I feel bad because I got caught and because everyone knows what I did. I don’t feel guilty about the transgression, however.”

Forgiveness Essential Reads

According to the four horsemen model, a shame-based response is much less likely to lead to an act of forgiveness compared with a guilt-based response.

Similarly, an offender might have something of an apathetic response. In other words, he or she might not really feel much at all vis-à-vis the betrayal. Again, the four horsemen model proposes that an apathetic response is much less likely to lead to forgiveness compared with a guilt-based response.

The Ingredients of Forgiveness

Danielle Kruchowy (used with permission)
Source: Danielle Kruchowy (used with permission)

Based on the four horsemen model of moral emotions, for a victim to forgive someone after a betrayal, the perpetrator of the betrayal must feel and fully demonstrate genuine guilt, an emotion that evolved to keep individuals connected to others in small-scale social contexts.

This all said, there are no guarantees. Some people might be true grudgers and have a hard time forgiving a betrayal, even if true guilt and reparations are evident. Others still may have a particular developmental history that makes certain acts relatively difficult to forgive.

As such, importantly, our model is not saying that genuine guilt is necessarily going to lead to forgiveness. Rather, our model is saying that guilt is a necessary condition for forgiveness to even be possible.

Bottom Line

The human moral experience can be complicated, difficult, painful, and even treacherous. From an evolutionary perspective, this is partly because our minds evolved to be highly sensitive to betrayal in small-scale contexts.

Forgiveness is a powerful social-emotional process (see Spikins, 2015) and it has the capacity to benefit one who has transgressed as well as one who has been the victim of some sort of betrayal.

But as Julius Caesar famously found out the hard way, betrayal can be a permanently damaging part of one’s life experience. It leads to outrage, which might set off a host of emotional and social outcomes. One such outcome might be genuine guilt. Under certain conditions, based on the four horsemen model that we present, such genuine guilt (and concomitant acts of reparation) may hold the key to facilitating true forgiveness.

Note: This post is based on a group project that was recently presented at the Heterodox Psychology Conference in Orange, CA. Special thanks go to the conference host, Richard Redding of Chapman University, for helping to facilitate the presentation of this work. Thanks also to the State University of New York at New Paltz for supporting the course, Advanced Research in Evolutionary Psychology, which provided the environment for the development of this project.

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De Jesus, A. R. et al. (2020). Betrayal, Outrage, Guilt, and Forgiveness: The Four Horsemen of the Human Moral Experience. A presentation given at the biennial meeting of the Heterodox Psychology Conference in Orange, CA. (all authors as follows: Amelia R. De Jesus, Edward Maurer, Nikoleta Alijaj, Michele Cristo, Ann Marie DeBonis, Nicole Elyukin, Glenn Geher, Sydney Huppert, Danielle Kruchowy, Kelly Nolan, Miriana Ruel, Aliza Santos, Baylee C. Spackman, Adrianna Villegas, Kerri Widrick, Cody Wojszynski and Victoria Zezula; Department of Psychology, SUNY New Paltz)

Dunbar, R. I. M. (1992). Neocortex size as a constraint on group size in primates.

Journal of Human Evolution, 22, 469–493.

Geher, G., & Wedberg, N. (2020). Positive evolutionary psychology: Darwin’s guide to living a richer life. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Spikins, P. (2015). The Geography of Trust and Betrayal: Moral disputes and Late Pleistocene dispersal. Open Quaternary.

Trivers, R. (1985). Social evolution. Menlo Park, CA: Benjamin/Cummings.