The story of Julius Caesar’s death is famous for its tragedy. In a sense, the fact that he was stabbed in the back and that he was necessarily (and momentarily) going to die wasn’t really the worst. Caesar’s death is famous as the prototypical act of betrayal in human experience.

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

Why is betrayal so painful?

In modern contexts, many of us live in large-scale communities. If you live in Madrid, for example, you are surrounded by millions of people in the same city. When it comes to our social psychology, our minds are plagued with ancient 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 just 10,000 years ago (in terms of organic evolution), all humans were nomads, living in small clans surrounded by relatives and others whom they would see repeatedly throughout their lives. Our minds did not evolve under conditions in which we coexist with strangers. And small-scale ancestral groups, for practical reasons, were capped at around 150 people.

In these small-scale conditions, in which people evolved to form bonds of trust and cooperation with each other, the loss of trust in someone who considers themselves close would have had devastating consequences. Under such conditions, a completely separate relationship from a close friend , relative, or romantic partner could have literally life-threatening consequences. And human moral psychology evolved under these kinds of social conditions.

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

The Four Horsemen of Human Moral Experience

At the recent (2020) Heterodox Psychology Conference in Orange, CA, a model of forgiveness based on evolutionary reasoning was presented. In this model, we see forgiveness as a powerful socio-emotional process that has the ability to keep people connected immediately after some kind of betrayal or social transgression .

As we see it, the road to forgiveness (which, by the way, is the fourth of the four horsemen in this model) is not easy. In ancient conditions, someone who automatically forgave others for transgressions that had the ability to harm oneself or one’s family would have been at a disadvantage because they could easily be exploited for the benefit of others.  In their model, they refer to automatic forgiveness as “Divine Forgiveness”, thinking that really only a true saint could be capable of such forgiveness.

The four horsemen they refer to, potentially leading to genuine forgiveness, are as follows:

    • Betrayal: which is the catalyst that starts the process that would create a possible need for forgiveness.
    • Indignation:   on the part of the victim , which is an anger that is expressed in part outward, which works to call out the offender and pressure to support the victim.
    • Guilt – On the part of the offender, which works to demonstrate, through emotional and behavioral means , as genuine apologetic behaviors, that the offender is truly sorry and can be trusted in the future.
  • Sorry: for the victim, who, if genuine, has the ability to repair the broken social connections that were affected by the betrayal.

Elle Mcdonald

I am Elle Mcdonald Specializations in Psychology . Graduated in psychology from the University of Tennessee in 2000. Diploma of Advanced Studies in the Department of Personality, Evaluation and psychological treatments with excellent results.

First Level of Master in Clinical Psychology at the Center for Behavioral Therapists (recognized with a scientific-professional nature by the College of Psychologists)

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