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Are We Truly Able to Forgive and Forget?

A new study may reveal a path to healthy forgetting.

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We've all heard the adage forgive and forget. The advice itself makes sense: When someone has done something wrong to us in the past, bearing a grudge will make all later interactions difficult. If you're always remembering the details of how someone has wronged you, then you'll be forced to relive those details in ways that bring those past events vividly into the present.

When you have forgiven someone, then, it's valuable also to forget the details of what they have done. But does that actually work? Does forgiveness allow you to forget those details?

This question was explored in an interesting paper in the July 2014 issue of Psychological Science by Saima Noreen, Raynette Biermann, and Malcolm MacLeod.

In an initial session, participants read a variety of scenarios leading them to imagine that someone had done something wrong to them. Each scenario described the person, the event, and what the person did afterward. The scenarios involved a variety of transgressions including lying, infidelity, and theft, and participants were asked whether they would forgive the person for what they had done. From these responses, the experimenters identified 12 items that people were generally willing to forgive, and 12 that they were not.

In the second session, experimenters explored people’s ability to forget the details of the scenarios.

First, participants read 24 scenarios that were paired with words that could be used to remind them of each scenario. Half the scenarios were ones that the participant was willing to forgive, and half were scenarios that the participant was not willing to forgive. Participants practiced associating the words with the scenarios until they could recall the scenarios after hearing the words with better than 50% accuracy.

Then, for half of the items they learned, participants saw the cue word again and were given a new set of instructions: Those in the Think condition were given one of the words, told to think about the scenario associated with that word, and then to state how the transgressor made amends for their mistake. Those in the No Think condition were told to avoid thinking about the scenario associated with the word. (The other half of the items that were not part of the Think or No Think conditions were used as a baseline.) Finally, participants were asked to recall all of the scenarios given the cue words they had learned.

Overall, participants were equally good at learning to associate scenarios with words regardless of whether they were willing to forgive the transgressor for the related offense or not.

However, the recall data following the Think or No Think conditions were interesting: For scenarios in which the participant was not willing to forgive a transgressor, these conditions did not have any influence on later recall. For scenarios in which participants were willing to forgive a transgressor, participants in the No Think condition recalled fewer scenarios—and fewer details of those scenarios—than participants in the Think condition. (The baseline items came out in between the two conditions.)

What is going on here?

Previous research suggests that the instructions used in the No Think condition can make it harder for people to recall details of things they learned or experienced in the past. These new results suggest that the No Think instructions work for transgressions that people are willing to forgive, but not those they are not willing to forgive.

This result suggests that forgiveness may actually give people permission to forget—that is, when people are willing to forgive, they are willing to give up the details of an episode. But when they are unwilling to forgive, they keep those details around. Presumably, they will also re-experience those details negatively when they remember them in the future.

There are a number of interesting studies that remain to be done to help us understand this result better. For one, this study used all hypothetical scenarios. It would be interesting to look at the relationship between forgiving and forgetting with situations people actually experienced. For another, this study focused on the relationship between forgiving and forgetting. It would also be interesting to know whether inducing people to forget details of an event would influence their tendency to forgive.