Research on the Science of Forgiveness: An Annotated Bibliography

By Adam Cohen | October 1, 2004 | 0 comments

Summaries of research on forgiveness, peace, and well-being.

Imagine all of the ways that people hurt or annoy each other in a day. The barista at the coffee house took too long to make your latte--and then used lowfat milk, instead of regular, as you ordered. When you finally got the right coffee and drove off in your car, someone cut you off in traffic--making you spill your latte on yourself. All of this happened on your birthday, which your best friend forgot. As a matter of fact, the coffee-stained shirt was a birthday present from this same friend two years ago. You can imagine that such a day might test whether you are prone to ruminate and be angry, or whether you tend to forgive.

Now this might not be a normal day and I might be more sensitive than most people. But I think even the most easygoing people frequently aggravate and are aggravated by others. If we didn't forgive people for any of these hurts, real or imagined, our lives would be filled with anger and spite. We might spend our time plotting and carrying out revenge, and avoiding people that we really ought to be close to. Forgiveness can free us from this kind of life. It allows people to live together and get on with their lives. It must be one of the most important factors in promoting peace between people, and well-being.

Despite its obvious importance in social interactions, forgiveness did not receive much attention from psychologists up until a few years ago. Since then, however, there has been an enormous increase rise in the amount of attention given to forgiveness. This research is beginning to address what forgiveness is, how we can measure it effectively, whether it is healthy, and whether different cultures and religious groups have the same views about it. I will briefly discuss each of those topics.

What is forgiveness?

Although we all feel we intuitively know what forgiveness is, it has proven to be a theoretical challenge to define it. Consider the following questions.

Is forgiveness an emotion? Is forgiveness a behavior?

Imagine your friend emails you to apologize for forgetting your birthday but you still feel angry with him. Nevertheless, you don't want to make too big a deal out of it, so you immediately hit the reply button and say, "I forgive you." Has forgiveness occurred?

Researchers Julie Juola Exline and Roy Baumeister have proposed that forgiveness has both internal (emotional) and external (behavioral) elements. Sometimes, we might choose to tell people we forgive them, even if we are still angry inside. Or, we might not be angry anymore, but we might not want to tell the offending person this so they don't think they have a license to walk all over us. Which of these is forgiveness? Exline and Baumeister do not seem to prefer the private aspects over the public aspects, but merely point out that forgiveness can involve one or both. However, little research has been done on this interesting and important distinction between private and public forgiveness.

Does forgiving someone mean you treat them the same as before?

Imagine an unfortunate but all too common situation in which a husband abuses his wife. Many people would say that an abused wife should not forgive her husband because that would make her vulnerable to future abuse. Can an abused wife forgive her husband and yet not go back to living with him? Most forgiveness researchers agree that forgiveness does not require exposing oneself over and over again to a dangerous situation. Still, in this example, many people may nevertheless equate forgiving with going back to the abusive spouse.

Does forgiveness mean saying that the offense was all right? Does it mean forgetting about the offense?

Most of us understand that forgiveness is not the same as forgetting an offense, or saying that is was ok. Nevertheless, some people see a link between forgiveness, forgetting, and pardoning offenses.

After I finished graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, I spent a year at UPenn's Solomon Asch Center for the Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict. My research there focused on forgiveness among Holocaust survivors. Colleagues and I interviewed Holocaust survivors about their experiences and their attitudes and feelings toward Germans. I found it interesting that Holocaust survivors varied widely on how they felt about modern German and German products. Some of them were perfectly comfortable around German people, whereas others would never even take a ride in a German car. When we asked them about whether they could ever forgive for the Holocaust, a common answer would omit any references to forgiving per se and would instead focus on forgetting: "We must never forget about the Holocaust. We can never say it was not so bad what happened to us."

Two of the best known forgiveness researchers, Michael McCullough and Everett Worthington, are always careful to distinguish forgiveness from pardoning an offense, or forgetting about it, or opening yourself up to further abuse. In a 1997 paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, McCullough, Worthington, and Kenneth Rachal defined forgiveness primarily in terms of changes in motivation. They wrote, "We define interpersonal forgiving as the set of motivational changes whereby one becomes (a) decreasingly motivated to retaliate against an offending relationship partner, (b) decreasingly motivated to maintain estrangement from the offender, and (c) increasingly motivated by conciliation and goodwill for the offender, despite the offender's hurtful actions."

Does forgiveness mean you think a person shouldn't be punished for what they did?

Some people object to forgiveness, citing the need for justice after a wrong has been committed. Other people say you can still forgive people even if you punish them for what they did. I remember listening to the news coverage while Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, was being executed. A reporter asked victims' family members how they felt about McVeigh's execution. Some said that while they thought is was important to forgive McVeigh for what he did, they still thought that he should be put to death. But many people, I suspect, wrestle with the relationship between forgiveness and punishment.

How can we measure forgiveness?

If you are thinking about becoming a forgiveness researcher, you might be intimidated to learn how many different ways there are to measure forgiveness. There seem to be as many forgiveness scales as there are forgiveness researchers. I have picked two scales to discuss because these scales have been well-validated. Both of them focus on interpersonal forgiveness.

The Transgression Narrative Test of Forgiveness

The first scale is the Transgression Narrative Test of Forgiveness (TNTF) and was developed by John Berry, Everett Worthington, and their colleagues. This questionnaire asks you to imagine yourself in five different situations where someone harms you, and to rate in each case how likely you would be to forgive the person.

Your pattern of forgiveness across the five situations probably gives some important clues about your general willingness to forgive other people, or your dispositional forgiveness. Berry and his collaborators presented some good evidence that their scale measures people's general tendencies to forgive. Across the various studies that they did to develop and validate this scale, published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, the evidence suggested that people who were disinclined to forgive were more likely to be prone to anger, anxiety, and other negative emotions. Furthermore, there seemed to be a small, positive relationship between willingness to forgive in these situations and the personality trait of agreeableness. Agreeable people are more good-natured, so this may suggest that forgiving people are also likely to be high in empathy, compassion, and trust.

The Transgression Related Interpersonal Motivations Inventory

Another important tool to measure forgiveness was developed by Michael McCullough, Everett Worthington, and some colleagues, and is called the Transgression Related Interpersonal Motivations Inventory (TRIM). Initial work on the scale was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. This scale, like the TNTF, focuses on forgiveness in relationships between people. However, the TRIM asks participants to remember a specific offense in which someone harmed them. And, unlike the TNTF, which simply asks people's likelihood of forgiving, the TRIM asks people several questions about their motives for revenge and for avoiding the perpetrator. The authors explained, "When an offended relationship partner reports that he or she has not forgiven a close relationship partner for a hurtful action, the offended partner's perception of the offense is stimulating relationship-destructive levels of the two motivational states; that is, (a) high motivation to avoid contact with the offending partner and (b) high motivation to seek revenge or see harm come to the offending partner."

The following five items comprise their Revenge scale: (1) I'll make him/her pay; (2) I wish that something bad would happen to him/her; (3) I want him/her to get what he/she deserves; (4) I'm going to get even; and (5) I want to see him/her hurt and miserable.

The following seven items make up their Avoidance scale: (1) I keep as much distance between us as possible; (2) I live as if he/she doesn't exist, isn't around; (3) I don't trust him/her; (4) I find it difficult to act warmly toward him/her; (5) 1 avoid him/her; (6) I cut off the relationship with him/her; and (7) I withdraw from him/her.

One of the ways these investigators validated the TRIM scale was to examine how the scale predicts qualities of people's relationships. It is likely that tendencies to forgive have important implications for personal relationships, and their study supported this. People's revenge and avoidance motivations (TRIM scores) were predictive of their relationship satisfaction. People who tended to forgive reported greater relationship quality, and also greater commitment to relationships. The authors summarized that "these findings gave some encouraging support for our conceptualization of forgiving as a motivational transformation that occurs more readily in satisfactory, committed relationships."

Is it healthy to forgive?

Work on the TRIM scale suggests that being more forgiving is associated with greater relationship satisfaction. Is forgiveness associated with better physical health as well? It seems possible that a lack of forgiveness--a tendency to maintain anger and resentment, to ruminate--could have damaging effects on physical health: and this is just what Charlotte vanOyen Witvliet and her colleagues at Hope College in Michigan have shown. Writing in Psychological Science, these investigators reported a study on the physiological effects of forgiveness versus holding a grudge. Witvliet and her co-investigators theorized that forgiveness "may free the wounded person from a prison of hurt and vengeful emotion, yielding both emotional and physical benefits, including reduced stress, less negative emotion, fewer cardiovascular problems, and improved immune system performance. . . . Unforgiving memories and mental imagery might produce negative facial expressions and increased cardiovascular and sympathetic reactivity, much as other negative and arousing emotions (e.g., fear, anger) do."

To test this important hypothesis, these researchers had 70 Hope College undergraduates remember a time in which they were hurt or mistreated by someone else. Over the course of the study, the participant rehearsed either forgiving that person or being unforgiving. Participants were told that being forgiving consisted of empathizing with the offender, and being forgiving involved letting go of negative emotions toward the offender and cultivating conciliatory ones. Being unforgiving consisted of rehearsing the hurt and holding a grudge.

Participants were encouraged to focus on the thoughts, feelings, and physical responses that would accompany each response. During the study, the participants remembered offenses that included rejections, lies, and insults from their friends, romantic partners, and family members. During the two-hour study, participants' psychophysiological responses, emotional responses, and facial expressions were recorded. The results powerfully showed that forgiveness was associated with a healthier profile of emotional and physiological reactions, compared to unforgiveness. During the unforgiveness periods, participants reported feeling more negative, aroused, angry and sad, and less in control. In contrast, when asked to try to be forgiving, participants reported feeling more empathy and did report feeling more forgiveness.

Physiological measurements showed that during unforgiveness, participants showed greater corrugator EMG activity, which is a measure of tension in the brow area of the face - perhaps indicative of negative emotions. Skin conductance levels were lower in the forgiveness periods, indicating less sympathetic nervous system arousal. Arterial blood pressure was also higher during the unforgiveness periods. Many of theses changes persisted into the recovery period of the study.

In all, the emotional and physiological data suggest that a sustained pattern of unforgiveness over time could result in poorer health because of the negative psychophysiological states that accompany unforgiveness. Witvliet and colleagues believe that "although it is unlikely that the brief unforgiving trials in this study would have a clinically significant effect on health, we believe that the effects obtained in this study provide a conservative measure of effects that naturally occur during unforgiving responses to real-life offenders."

Is everything forgivable?

I have been discussing forgiveness in the context of interpersonal relationships, and I have been promoting the relationship and health benefits of forgiveness. But the question of the desirability of forgiveness is relevant in many other contexts. Is forgiveness also possible or healthy in extreme cases, such as with respect to genocide? Some researchers, such as Ervin Staub and Laurie Anne Pearlman, say yes. "Forgiving is difficult," they write. "The very idea of it can be offensive after horrible events like the Holocaust, the genocide in Rwanda, or the genocidal violence in Tibet. Even to people outside the victim group, the idea that survivors should forgive following genocide is an affront, an anathema. . . . Nevertheless, forgiving is necessary and desirable." They take this position because they believe forgiveness paves the way for reconciliation and healing, promotes psychological well-being, and lifts psychological and spiritual burdens.

Nevertheless, as Mark Rye and colleagues discuss in a book chapter they've written on religion and forgiveness, there are some different views between religions on certain aspects of forgiveness. In Christianity, repentance is not necessary before forgiveness (although repentance can be seen as a step in the direction of obtaining, declaring, and practicing one's membership in the kingdom of God).

Rabbi Elliott Dorff explained that in Judaism, the offender is often required to repent before he can be forgiven, as this shows that the offender is sincere and wants to be reinstated into the community. In the context of the Holocaust, many Jews believe that there is no repentance that can possibly make up for what happened, and hence believe that forgiveness is impossible. Repentance in Judaism must be directed at the actual victim--no one can forgive on someone else's behalf. In fact, Judaism teaches that even God cannot forgive a person for a sin committed against another person unless forgiveness is obtained from the victim. Therefore, forgiveness for murder is never possible.

These differences in theology actually do seem to affect the ways in which Jews and Christians view forgiveness. In a series of studies with Ari Malka, Paul Rozin, and Lina Cherfas, I have shown that Jews do agree more than Protestants that some offenses are unforgivable. This was not explainable by differences in how religiously committed the subjects were, or by differences in their general tendency to forgive offenses, as measured by the TNTF scale mentioned above. Moreover, Jews' greater agreement, relative to Protestants, that some offenses are too severe to forgive, that only the victim has the right to forgive, and that forgiveness depends on repentance explained Jews' lower willingness to forgive two different offenses, including a Holocaust-related offense.

All this is not to say that Jewish religious doctrine does not value forgiveness. In general, Judaism values forgiveness very highly. Although some people see the Old Testament God as vengeful and angry, Jewish tradition does not see God that way--he is just, but he is also forgiving. One rabbinic teaching holds that God's forgiveness is 500 times as strong as his anger. Forgiveness is one of God's attributes that Jews are obligated to emulate. It's just that Judaism claims there are limits to what can be forgiven.

Summary

I have reviewed several current questions and issues in research on forgiveness. I have proposed that forgiveness is a way of smoothing social relationships, but raised the question of how exactly to define forgiveness: is it a change in emotions, a behavior? Does it mean forgetting or pardoning offenses? People may vary in their understandings of what forgiveness is. Several tools exist to measure people's tendencies to forgive, and I have briefly discussed two: the Transgression Narrative Test of Forgiveness, and the Transgression Related Interpersonal Motivations Inventory. Both of these focus on forgiveness in interpersonal relationships. Forgiveness, at least in terms of interpersonal forgiveness, appears to have benefits for both individual health and relationships. Lastly, I have raised the question of whether forgiveness is appropriate for all offenses, including genocide, and reviewed some evidence suggesting that members of different religions may not agree on this issue.

References:

Berry, J. W., Worthington, E. L., Jr., Parrot, I., L., O'Connor, L. E., & Wade, N. G. (2001). Dispositional forgiveness: Development and construct validity of the Transgression Narrative Test of Forgiveness (TNTF). Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 27, 1277-1290.

Cohen, A.B., Malka, A., Rozin, P. & Cherfas, L. (2004). Religion and unforgivable offenses. Manuscript submitted for publication.

Exline, J.J. & Baumeister, R. (2000). Expressing forgiveness and repentance: Benefits and barriers. In M.E. McCullough, K.I. Pargament & C.E. Thoresen (Eds), Forgiveness: Theory, research and practice (p. 133 - 155). New York: Guilford.

McCullough, M.E., Rachal, K., Sandage, S.J., Worthington, E.L., Brown, S.W., & Hight, T.L. (1998). Interpersonal forgiving in close relationships: II. Theoretical elaboration and measurement. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 75, 1586-1603.

McCullough, M.E., Worthington, E.L., Jr., & Rachal, K.C. (1997). Interpersonal forgiving in close relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73, 321-336.

Rye, M. S., Pargament, K. I., Ali, M. A., Beck, G. L., Dorff, E. N., Hallisey, C., et al. (2000). Religious perspectives on forgiveness. In M. E. McCullough, K. I. Pargament & C. E. Thoresen (Eds.), Forgiveness: Theory, research and practice (pp. 17-40). New York: Guilford.

Staub, E., & Pearlman, L. A. (2001). Healing, reconciliation, and forgiving after genocide and other collective violence. In R. G. Helmick & R. L. Petersen (Eds.), Forgiveness and reconciliation: Religion, public policy, and conflict transformation (pp. 205-227). Philadelphia: Templeton.

Witvliet, C.V.O., Ludwig, T. E., & Vander Laan, K. L. (2001). Granting forgiveness of harboring grudges: Implications for emotion, physiology, and health. Psychological Science, 12, 117-123.

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