Reflecting on 30 Years of Forgiveness Science
What were the developments in this field and where is it headed next?
Posted April 16, 2019
This year marks an important 30th anniversary of which the world is hardly aware and from which the world has greatly benefitted. In 1989, the scientific community witnessed the first empirically-based published article in which there was an explicit focus on person-to-person forgiving. That paper appeared in the Journal of Adolescence with a focus on how children, adolescents, and young adults thought about forgiveness, particularly with a focus on what circumstances would make their forgiving more likely (Enright, Santos, & Al-Mabuk, 1989). Prior to this study, there was research on apology, or people seeking forgiveness , but never with a deliberate focus on people forgiving one another.
At the time, it seemed to us that forgiveness might be a controversial topic, suggesting perhaps weakness or an overly religious emphasis that would not be viewed favorably by the scientific community. So, we deliberately aligned this first-ever published study with a hot topic at that time: the moral stage models of Piaget (1932) and Kohlberg (1969), which focused exclusively on how people develop in their thinking about justice or what people deserve, not on the merciful side of the human mind or being good to those who are not good to you as in forgiveness . We found that children do not have an unconditional view of forgiving (offering it whenever they wished), but instead were influenced by whether or not they could get even with the other, if an apology occurred, or what peers thought of them if they did or did not forgive. It was only in the developmental period of emerging adulthood that people realized that they can forgive as an unconditional act of kindness toward an offender, without that offending person doing anything, such as showing remorse or apologizing.
The next empirical study of forgiveness that was published, appearing four years later, moved quickly into the clinical, counseling, and other mental health fields as the Process Model of how people forgive was introduced to the scientific community (Hebl & Enright, 1993). This study showed that as elderly females forgave family members for unjust treatment, then they (the forgivers themselves) became psychologically healthier. This was the first published intervention study and it showed a cause-and-effect relationship between learning to forgive and the subsequent positive changes in psychological health.
Six years after the first publication, in 1995, other researchers began to publish as they, too, took up the empirical cause of forgiveness. McCullough and Worthington (1995) published another empirically-based intervention in which the goal was to change participants' psychology through the process of forgiveness. I recall speaking frequently to Dr. McCullough about his interest in forgiveness studies while he was a graduate student, under the direction of Dr. Everett Worthington at Virginia Commonwealth University. It was great to be able to share our knowledge on the science of forgiveness, which we began to examine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1985, to aid in the advancement of this important area of research. Since then, three different meta-analyses have been published, because of the large number of studies which examine forgiveness models for psychological health, all concluding that as people learn to forgive, this statistically significantly improves psychological health (Baskin & Enright, 2004; Wade et al., 2014; Aktar & Barlow, 2018).
Both our Process Model and Worthington's REACH model work well in their respective contexts, ours primarily in clinical settings and his centered mostly, but not exclusively, on psychologically-intact students in college settings. Although our approach tends to be long-term and his more short-term in duration, both have shown statistically-significant results for the populations of interest (Wade et al., 2014). The scientific community began to realize that when people are treated unfairly by others, then a characteristic effect of such unfair treatment is the development of unhealthy anger that is related to the emergence of anxiety, depression, decreased hope and self-esteem, and compromised relationships. The practice of forgiving not only reverses the resentment but also significantly decreases the other negative psychological concomitants which accompany the toxicity of resentment. We now have an empirically-based treatment, Forgiveness Therapy, published by the American Psychological Association (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2015) and used by thousands of mental health professionals.
I have watched as thousands of researchers began to join this field of forgiveness studies. Topics expanded to include the theme of self-forgiveness (Woodyatt & Wenzel, 2013), trait forgiveness or the more general tendency for people to forgive as part of their personality (Emmons, 2001), and even group forgiveness in which different communities as a whole engage in forgiving one another (Wohl, Hornsey, & Bennett, 2012). Cross-cultural studies (see, for example, Hanke & Fischer, 2013; Ho & Fung, 2010) show for the most part that forgiveness is an important construct in many world communities. Forgiveness interventions now are being extended to children who learn about forgiveness by observing story characters as they enter into and resolve conflicts (Enright et al., 2007; Enright & Song, 2018).
Such upward developments in knowledge were not without their difficulties and challenges from other scholars. For example, in 1998, we expressed concern regarding what we called definitional drift, or the distortion in the published literature of what forgiveness actually is (Enright, Freedman, & Rique, 1998). This concern continues 21 years later. For example, there are forgiveness scales that assess only the absence of revenge rather than the more morally virtuous qualities of forgiveness such as becoming more kind, generous, and loving toward the one who offended. Some scales measure the degree to which a person forgives situations rather than directly forgiving people . It is not uncommon that authors state, at the beginning of their articles, that there is no agreed-upon definition of the term forgiveness . This certainly does not imply that forgiveness is a relative term, but may indicate, instead, different authors' varied understanding of this subtle construct. Entire volumes now are published that are critical of forgiveness interventions (Lamb & Murphy, 2002). A manuscript was published with the dark title of The Dark Side of Forgiveness (McNulty, 2011), claiming that when partners forgive each other it is more likely that the offenses will continue. The finding, though, must be questioned because the author never asked the respondents what they meant by forgiveness; they could have had in mind excusing or condoning the unwanted action and so the findings are not definitive.
Over the next 30 years, it is my hope for the following. First, researchers will deeply study past work to understand previous definitions of forgiveness. If there is an attempted change in the definition, the person offering this novel approach should discuss what is wrong with past views and why the new one corrects the old. This should lessen the introductory statements in articles that there is no agreed-upon definition. Second, it would be good to extend the study of forgiveness into the physical realm to ascertain if forgiveness therapy can reduce certain physical symptoms that are related to stress, to resentment.
As a third idea, it will be good to bring forgiveness into the peace movement in a more intensive manner now. After all, do not resentments and hatreds contribute to the start of some wars? If we can find a way to reduce that resentment before the first shot is fired, what a world we would have. Yes, the world has greatly benefitted from the now thousands of researchers' and mental health providers' efforts in service to forgiveness. May we do even more so that peace and forgiveness become a team, routine in matters of conflict that could have grave consequences until the flames of resentment are extinguished by sound forgiveness programs.
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Emmons, R. (2000). Personality and forgiveness. In M. E. McCullough, K. I., Pargament, & C. E. Thoresen (Eds.), Forgiveness: Theory, research, and practice (pp.156–175). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
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Enright, R. D., Freedman, S., & Rique, J. (1998). The psychology of interpersonal forgiveness (pp. 46-62). In R.D. Enright & J. North (Eds.), Exploring forgiveness. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.
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Wohl, M. J. A., Hornsey, M. J., & Bennett, S. H. (2012). Why group apologies succeed and fail: Intergroup forgiveness and the role of primary and secondary emotions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102, 306-322.
Woodyatt, L. & Wenzel, M. (2013). Self-forgiveness and restoration of an offender following an interpersonal transgression. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 32, 225-259.
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