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Dr. Simon Moss


When individuals feel that someone has acted inappropriately or offensively towards them, at first, they will typically feel resentful. After a while, however, they might learn to forgive this person& they will relinquish their negative feelings towards the individual and, often, reestablish a relationship.

Interestingly, after individuals forgive someone, a host of benefits ensue: indices of wellbeing, for example, have been shown to improve (see, for example, Witvliet, Ludwig, & Vander Laan, 2001& Worthington, 2005, 2006)& furthermore, they become more altruistic and cooperative in other contexts as well. In particular, forgiveness is most effective if the victims are able to discuss with the perpetrator the values they feel were breached (Wenzel & Okimoto, 2010).

Many factors encourage individuals to forgive someone else. To illustrate, after individuals interact with a close friend or relative--or even after the name of this person is presented subliminally--they become more inclined to forgive another person who had acted offensively or inappropriately (Karremans & Aarts, 2007).


To define forgiveness, many scholars stipulate the features this concept does not entail. Forgiveness does not imply the victim condones the behavior that was perpetrated (e.g., Aquino, Grover, Goldman, & Folger, 2003). Furthermore, forgiveness does imply the victim felt the offense was trivial rather than grave (Wenzel & Okimoto, 2010). Similarly, forgiveness does not imply the victim feels the perpetrator was not responsible for the act.

Instead, when individuals forgive someone, they surrender their resentment and relinquish other negative feelings. They also refrain from any motivation to harm the perpetrator (e.g., Aquino, Grover, Goldman, & Folger, 2003). Finally, they do not feel the need to avoid the person, but indeed like to maintain a relationship (Wenzel & Okimoto, 2010). Many measures of forgiveness in response to specific transgressions or trait forgiveness refer to these features (e.g., McCullough, Root, & Cohen, 2006& Yamhure, Thompson, & Snyder, 2003).

Consequences of forgiveness


Forgiveness fosters many benefits. Unsurprisingly, for example, after individuals forgive someone, their satisfaction with the relationship and willingness to sacrifice their interests to maintain this relationship improve (e.g., Fincham, Paleari, & Regalia, 2002& Karremans & Van Lange, 2004& Maio, Thomas, Fincham, & Carnelley, 2008). Furthermore, their social interactions with other individuals, and not merely the person they forgave, also improves& they become more supportive and altruistic in general (Karremans, Van Lange, & Holland, 2005). Finally, both psychological and even physical well-being are also enhanced (e.g., Karremans, Van Lange, Ouwerkerk, & Kluwer, 2003& for a review, see Witvliet, 2001).

For example, in a study reported by Witvliet, Ludwig, and Vander Laan (2001), participants imagined an offensive act that was perpetrated in the past. Participants were then instructed to imagine various responses to this person. In one condition, for example, participants imagined forgiving this person. In another condition, they imagined they maintained their grudge. In general, compared to imagining forgiveness, imagining a grudge tended to increase reactivity in heart rate, blood pressure, and skin conductance--all of which compromise health. Furthermore, even after attempts to construct relaxing images, these physiological responses persisted (see also Worthington & Scherer, 2004).

Other studies show that forgiveness is positively related to mental health. Forgiveness, for example, is inversely associated with depression (Burnette, Davis, Green, Worthington, & Bradfield, 2009), as gauged by the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale, with items like "I felt that everything I did was an effort".

Social connection and cooperation

After individuals forgive someone, they feel a greater sense of connection with other people as well& they become more cooperative and supportive. In one study, conducted by Karremans, Van Lange, and Holland (2005), some participants recalled an offence they had forgiven. Other participants recalled an offence they had not forgiven. Next, they read an extract, supposedly written in a foreign language. Blanks were dispersed throughout the text. They had to guess which personal pronouns these blanks represented. If they had recalled an instance in which they forgave someone, they subsequently were more likely to assume the pronouns were we, us, or our. Their attention was more focused on social collectives than personal interests.

A subsequent study confirmed this proposition. Participants were asked to indicate the extent to which they feel close to various people in their life, using the inclusion of other in the self scale (see the self expansion model). If participants had recalled an occasion in which they forgave someone, they were more likely to feel close to other people (Karremans, Van Lange, & Holland, 2005). Furthermore, memories of forgiveness also increased the likelihood that individuals would volunteer to a charity organization as well as donate money, even after controlling mood (Karremans, Van Lange, & Holland, 2005).

Sense of justice

Interestingly, after individuals forgive a person, they experience a sense of justice. Wenzel and Okimoto (2010) argued that forgiveness restores the symbolic implications of transgressions. Specifically, when individuals feel someone has acted inappropriately or offensively, they believe the values they share with this person have been violated (see also Vidmar, 2000). According to Wenzel and Okimoto (2010), the act of forgiveness is a process or interaction that provides individuals--both the victim and the perpetrator--with an opportunity to reaffirm these values together. That is, the victim can emphasize the values they espouse, and the perpetrator can acknowledge the importance of these priorities as well.

Furthermore, when individuals feel that someone has acted inappropriately or offensively towards them, they feel their status or power has been compromised. Again, as Wenzel and Okimoto (2010) maintain, the act of forgiveness provides individuals with an opportunity to reassert their status. That is, when the victims exercise the choice to forgive, they demonstrate they have assumed a position of power& their status seems to be reinstated.

Wenzel and Okimoto (2010) conducted some research to show that forgiveness reinstates the sense that shared values have been reinforced and the victim has regained status, translating to a sense of justice. To assess these propositions, in this research, participants imagined a situation in which a friend, called Kelly, claimed she could not help on an important project because she needed to attend to a family commitment. However, while she was supposed to be helping her family, participants imagine they witness her on a date.

In one condition, participants are asked to write an email to Kelly, expressing their forgiveness. In another condition, participants did not forgive Kelly. Afterwards, they completed a series of questions to assess the extent to which they perceive the situation is fair and just, believe they share the same values as Kelly, feel respected rather than exploited, as well as hostile and willing to reconcile with her.

Structural equation modeling showed that participants, after expressing forgiveness to Kelly, were more likely to believe they share values with her and feel respected. These sense of shared values and respect translated into a sense of justice and fairness, which in turn tempered hostility and increased their willingness to reconcile. In short, despite some conflicting arguments, forgiveness does not represent the inclination to abandon the need to seek justice& instead, forgiveness represents a process that reinstates justice.

Self respect

Most studies have highlighted the benefits of forgiveness. Luchies, Finkel, McNulty, and Kumashiro (2010), however, showed that forgiveness, in specific circumstances, can reduce self respect. In particular, the implications of forgiveness depends on whether the person who committed the offensive behavior is agreeable and trustworthy.

Specifically, in some instances, the person who acted offensively is, despite their behavior, a reasonable and agreeable person. This person might have apologized sincerely, assumed responsibility, and even compensated in some sense. The victim, therefore, could benefit from a relationship from this person. In these instances, forgiveness tends to be appropriate and foster self respect.

In other instances, the person who acted offensively continues to be untrustworthy and disagreeable. In these circumstances, the victim is unlikely to benefit from any relationship with this person in the future. Forgiveness towards this person tends to compromise self respect. Individuals associated forgiveness in these contexts with indignity or humiliation.

Luchies, Finkel, McNulty, and Kumashiro (2010) conducted a series of four studies to assess this proposition. In one of the studies, for example, participants imagined a scenario in which their partner had betrayed their confidence. In some instances, they also imagined the partner had conceded the behavior was inappropriate and attempted to compensate in some way. In other instances, they imagined the partner had denied any misconduct. Later, participants evaluated the degree to which they feel respect for themselves. Forgiveness increases self respect, but only if the partner had assumed responsibility& otherwise, forgiveness decreased self respect.

Antecedents to forgiveness

Executive function

According to Pronk, Karremans, Overbeek, Vermulst, and Wigboldus (2010), executive functioning is vital to forgiveness. Executive functioning, broadly, refers to the capacity of individuals to inhibit their natural inclinations and to adjust goals to accommodate the circumstances. To forgive, individuals must override the prevailing negative feelings that severe offences can evoke and consider another perspective--a task that obviously demands executive functioning. Thus, if executive functioning is impaired, negative thoughts cannot be alleviated and rumination should ensue, compromising forgiveness. Accordingly, the motivation to forgive does not always translate to the capacity to forgive.

Pronk, Karremans, Overbeek, Vermulst, and Wigboldus (2010) conducted a series of studies that vindicate this proposition. First, they revealed that one measure of executive functioning is positively related to the tendency to forgive, as measured by a scale. To gauge executive functioning, participants completed the two-back task, which assesses the capacity to update information in working memory: A series of letters appeared on a screen, and participants needed to identify each time a letter was the same as a character that appeared two items ago.

In a second study, participants completed a task that assesses other facets of executive functioning--inhibition and switching. Furthermore, participants reflected upon an event they regarded as offensive. Over a period of five weeks, they evaluated the extent to which they forgive this person. During this period, if executive functioning was advanced rather than limited, forgiveness was more likely to increase (Pronk, Karremans, Overbeek, Vermulst, & Wigboldus, 2010). Subsequent studies showed this association between executive function and forgiveness was especially pronounced when the offense was severe rather than mild. In addition, rumination about the event mediated this association.

Nevertheless, some studies show that forgiveness, especially towards a close friend or relative, does not always demand self control but proceeds automatically. That is, relational schemas--patterns of behavior that individuals enact in close relationships--might entail the inclination to forgive. Over time, individuals learn that forgiveness, particularly in close relationships, can translate into positive outcomes& in contrast, the reluctance to forgive can escalate conflict and incur other costs.

To illustrate, in a study conducted by Karremans and Aarts (2007), participants specified the name of a close friend or relative and the name of someone was not close. Next, a series of 15 scenarios were presented, in which someone committed an offensive or unsuitable act& participants specified the extent to which they would forgive the person in this context. Immediately before these scenarios were presented, one of the two names was presented subliminally. If the name represented the close friend or relative, instead of the other person, participants were more likely to report they would forgive the perpetrator of this offensive act. Priming close friends or relatives, therefore, promoted a tendency to forgive. A subsequent study showed these primes did not affect the perceived severity of the offence--but only influenced the tendency to forgive (Karremans & Aarts, 2007).

Karremans and Aarts (2007) also showed these primes of close friends or relatives promote forgiveness automatically& forgiveness did not demand self control or deliberation. To illustrate, these primes increased the accessibility of words associated with forgiveness, as a word fragment task underscored.

Effort and self control

The capacity of individuals to maintain effort and to override their impulses may also facilitate forgiveness (see also ego depletion theory). That is, to forgive people, individuals need to curb any impulse to avenge some act. Hence, individuals who cannot readily expend mental effort may not be as likely to forgive.

DeWall, Pond, and Bushman (2010) uncovered some indirect evidence of this proposition. According to these authors, the capacity to expend mental effort is partly dependent on whether or not individuals cannot readily utilize their reserves of glucose. Individuals with symptoms of Type 2 diabetes--who cannot utilize glucose efficiently--should thus be less likely to forgive other people.

DeWall, Pond, and Bushman (2010) conducted a series of studies that verify this series of arguments. In one set of studies, for example, participants completed a scale that assessed the extent to which they exhibit the symptoms of Type 2 diabetes, such as shortness of breath at night or numbness in the feet. Next, participants completed various measures of forgiveness. One measure assessed the general tendency of individuals to forgive friends, relatives, or colleagues. Another measure assessed the willingness of individuals to forgive someone in five hypothetical situations, such as violating confidentiality. A third measure gauged the extent to which participants had actually forgiven someone after a past transgression.

Symptoms of Type 2 diabetes were negatively correlated with each measure of forgiveness. A subsequent study showed that symptoms of Type 2 diabetes were negatively correlated with cooperation in a Prisoner's dilemma.


The finding that executive functions are related to forgiveness implies that individuals must inhibit their usual inclinations to ruminate and then must shift their mindset to forgive someone. Accordingly, forgiveness must involve self control.

Consistent with this possibility, the two personality that coincide with self control--conscientiousness (cf. Roberts, Chernyshenko, Stark, & Goldberg, 2005) and agreeableness--are also associated with the propensity to forgive. In a meta-analysis of 15 studies, for example, Balliet (2010) showed that conscientious is indeed positively, but modestly, related to this propensity to forgive. According to Balliet, individuals who report elevated levels of conscientious can more readily control their motivation to seek revenge, instead shifting their goal to more communal pursuits. Furthermore, conscientious may also facilitate the capacity of individuals to suppress their anger (Jensen-Campbell, Knack, Waldrip, & Campbell , 2007). Consistent with these assumptions, Hill and Allemand (2012) showed the capacity to set and fulfill goals mediates the association between conscientiousness and trait forgiveness, even after controlling age and parental roles.

Agreeableness is also related to the propensity to forgive. Indeed, many studies have confirmed this relationship (e.g., Worthington, Parrott, O?Connor, & Wade, 2001& Brown, 2003& Walker & Gorsuch, 2002). Furthermore, research indicates that neuroticism is also negatively related to this tendency to forgive other individuals (Brown, 2003& Walker & Gorsuch, 2002)& similarly, the capacity to override negative emotions, seamlessly and rapidly, rather than ruminate, often called an action orientation, is also positively related to forgiveness (Allemand, Job, Christen, & Keller, 2008).

Attachment style

In addition to personality, attachment style also affects the likelihood of forgiveness. Specifically, some individuals are often concerned they will be rejected. As a consequence, they are especially sensitive to problems and difficulties& even minor conflicts can translate into pronounced rumination. This rumination tends to stifle forgiveness (for evidence, see Burnette, Davis, Green, Worthington, & Bradfield, 2009).

In contrast, some individuals do not like to form close, intimate relationships& they feel uncomfortable with intimacy, especially in stressful contexts. Because of this aversion to intimacy, they do not experience appreciable empathy. This limited empathy also impedes forgiveness (see Burnette, Davis, Green, Worthington, & Bradfield, 2009).

Need to belong

People often assume that anyone who experiences a strong need to belong?and therefore feel lonely or excluded--are more likely to forgive other individuals. That is, to fulfill their need to belong, these individuals may be more inclined to forgive trivial or moderate offences merely to establish and maintain relationships. However, as Barnes, Carvallo, Brown, and Osterman (2010) showed, if people report an elevated need to belong, they are actually less inclined to forgive.

In one study, participants completed a questionnaire, designed to assess a need for belonging, attachment style, and trait forgiveness, epitomized by items like ?It is admirable to be a forgiving person?. Need to belong was negatively related to trait forgiveness but positively associated with both anxious attachment and avoidant attachment. In contrast, as the second study showed, after people wrote about supportive people in their life, fulfilling their need to belong, they were more likely to forgive.

A third study examined the factors that mediate this inverse relationship between need to belong and forgiveness. Need to belong was positively associated with negative emotions, expectations of repeated offences, and harsh evaluations of offences, each of which impeded forgiveness. Overall, these findings indicate that a need for belong tends to bias attention to negative emotions and appraisals, curbing the capacity to forgive.


Some evidence indicates that compassion can promote various forms of forgiveness. Specifically, when individuals experience compassion, they are not as inclined to punish a transgressor. Indeed, and more interestingly, even compassion to one person induces a reluctance to punish another person (Condon & DeSteno, 2011).

In this study, participants completed tasks while seated in a cubicle between a male and female who were actually confederates of the researcher. First, the individuals completed a series of maths problems. They received money for each correct answer. After 4 minutes, the individuals were asked to indicate the number of questions they answered correctly. In some instances, the other male cheated: Somehow he was granted an opportunity to shred his work while the experimenter left the room for a moment and then maintained that he had completed all 20 questions.

Next, after a filler task, compassion was evoked in some participants. Specifically, the participants watched the female candidate cry, with fake tears running down her cheeks, claiming to the experimenter her brother had been diagnosed with cancer. The experimenter then permitted her to leave and escorted her. Other participants were not exposed to this scene.

Finally, participants were granted an opportunity to punish the male confederate using the hot sauce method (see also measures of aggression). In essence, participants complete a taste test. The procedure ensures that participants are granted an opportunity to distribute a significant amount of hot sauce to the male confederate, most likely representing a form of punishment.

If the male confederate cheated, participants tended to distribute more hot sauce to this person. That is, they punished the individual. However, if compassion to the female had been induced, they were not as likely to punish the male (Condon & DeSteno, 2011).

Thus, somehow, compassion curbs the need of individuals to punish transgressors. Compassion may increase the likelihood that people are able to ascribe transgressions to other contextual determinants& that is, they become more aware of the potential complications and challenges in the lives of people. Alternatively, when people feel compassionate, they may experience a sense of similarity to someone else, promoting supportive behavior. Finally, compassion can increase the likelihood that individuals are able to control their aggressive tendencies.


After individuals are victims of some offence, they often fantasize over some revenge. They imagine hurting, deriding, or undermining the perpetrator somehow. Unsurprisingly however, as Barber, Maltby, and Macaskill (2005) showed, these feelings of revenge tend to prevent forgiveness. For example, in one study, if participants endorsed statements like "I have long living fantasies of revenge after the conflict is over", they were not as likely to forgive the perpetrator after the incident.

Self esteem

Related to attachment style, individuals whose perception of themselves is resilient to threat are more likely to forgive other people. For example, when self esteem is elevated, individuals do not feel as offended by inappropriate behavior& they can withstand these offences, facilitating forgiveness. Eaton, Struthers, and Santelli (2006a) showed that self esteem is indeed positively associated with both trait and state measures of forgiveness.

In contrast, narcissism is inversely related to forgiveness (Eaton, Struthers, and Santelli, 2006a& see also Exline, Baumeister, Bushman, Campbell, & Finkel, 2004). Individuals who exhibit narcissism are particularly distressed or angry when they receive information that undermines their inflated, but brittle, perception of themselves. The ensuing emotions tends to preclude forgiveness.

Perceived power

As Karremans and Smith (2010) show, perceived power can also affect level of forgiveness. Specifically, when individuals experience a sense of power, they become more likely to express and to implement their prevailing inclinations. In committed relationships, the prevailing inclination of individuals is to forgive. Hence, in these contexts, a sense of power should promote forgiveness. Consistent with these arguments, after individuals reflected upon a time in which they were granted power, they were more likely to forgive a person to whom they had developed a committed or lasting friendship. They were not any more likely to forgive a person to whom they had not developed a strong relationship.

Karremans and Smith (2010) also explored the mechanisms that underpin this association. In the final study, for example, participants specified the extent to which they felt committed to their relationship as well as the extent to which they feel power in this relationship--that is, the degree to which they feel they can influence their partner. Finally, participants reflected upon a time in which they felt hurt by their partner& they answered questions that gauge the degree to which they ruminate about this event and the extent to whcih they have forgiven this person. To measure rumination, they completed questions like "Every now and then, the offense spontaneously comes to mind". To assess forgiveness, participants were asked questions like "Even though his or her actions hurt me, I have goodwill for him or her".

Again, power fostered forgiveness, but only in committed couples. This effect was mediated by rumination. Presumably, when individuals feel committed, their primary inclination is to maintain the relationship. Power enhances the capacity of individuals to pursue these prevailing inclinations, curbing the rumination that would obstruct this goal.


In general, people are more able to forgive someone after they feel this offender has been punished in some way (Strelan & Van Prooijen, 2013). For example, people are more inclined to forgive a convicted person who was fined or sentenced by a judge.

For example, in one study, conducted by Strelan and Van Prooijen (2013), participants imagined their wallet was stolen by a thief on the train--and then reported this incident to the police. Next, they imagined the thief was caught, convicted, and punished, caught but not convicted because of insufficient evidence, or not caught. Finally, participants completed a series of questions that assessed the likelihood they would forgive the thief as well as the degree to which the thief received the outcome they deserved, called just deserts. Participants were more likely to forgive the thief if this offender had been punished. This relationship was mediated by just deserts.

Likewise, in another study, participants recalled a situation in which they had been hurt or offended by another person. In particular, they imagined situations in which they had either punished or not punished the individual. Later, they are asked to imagine another scenario, in which a friend was negligent while babysitting the child of one of their other friends. Participants indicated the degree to which they would forgive this person. Recollections of punishment in one scenario enhanced the capacity of people to forgive a person in another scenario. Finally, another study showed that only just deserts, and not the motivation to seek revenge, mediated the effect of punishment on forgiveness.

Presumably, individuals like to perceive the world as fair and just. If someone is not punished, they feel the need to sustain their resentment towards this person, impeding forgiveness. Similarly, once justice has been restored, individuals feel safe enough to accept the vulnerability that forgiveness entails. In short, a sense of justice promotes forgiveness.

Apologies and empathy

Apologies do not always translate to forgiveness. That is, individuals do not always forgive someone who apologises for a previous act, such as discourtesy. Many factors affect the likelihood of forgiveness following an apology (Takaku, 2001).

To illustrate, when individuals themselves act inappropriately or offensively, they tend to ascribe their behavior to factors they could not control--instructions from managers, for example. In contrast, when individuals feel that someone else has acted inappropriately or offensively, they often ascribe this behavior to the tarnished character or personality of this person. They will, therefore, often reject apologies. Nevertheless, in some instance, individuals will empathize with this person& they will imagine this unsuitable act from the perspective of this individual. As a consequence, they attribute the behavior to factors this person could not control or prevent& they will, therefore, be more inclined to accept apologies and offer forgiveness.

Empathy may also mediate, and not only moderate, the relationship between apologies and subsequent forgiveness. That is, apologies have been shown to promote various indices of empathy, and this empathy fosters forgiveness (for evidence, see Bono, McCullough, & Root, 2008& McCullough, Worthington, & Root, 2007& McCullough, Rachal, Sandage, Worthington, Brown, & Hight, 2008).

Essentialist beliefs

Some individuals experience intense anger, instead of forgiveness, after they contemplate atrocities that were perpetrated against their ethnic group in the past. For example, many Chinese still feel anger towards the Japanese massacre in Nanjing during 1937. Likewise, many Muslims feel anger towards the Russian or American incursions in Islamic nations during previous decades. This rage can translate into radical behavior in the future.

One of the primary determinants of anger, and obstacles to forgiveness, is the assumption that ethnic groups represent core essences, called essentialism. That is, some individuals assume that ethnic groups differ biologically and genetically from one another. Specifically, when individuals espouse essentialist beliefs, they assume that members of these ethnic groups share an essential feature in common and are relatively homogenous. They also perceive ethnic categories as immutable and exclusive. Finally, they assume these categories are informative: The behavior or traits of individuals can be inferred from the groups to which they belong (for related definitions of essentialism, see Hirschfeld, 1996& Medin, 1989& Yzerbyt, Rocher, & Schadron, 1997).

When individuals adopt these essentialist beliefs, forgiveness towards past atrocities against their ethnicity is inhibited, and anger is maintained. That is, these individuals feel more connected to victims of these atrocities: They feel they share the same essence (Zakefka, Pehrson, Mole, & Chan, 2010).

Zakefka, Pehrson, Mole, and Chan (2010) conducted a study that vindicates these arguments. Participants were residents of Hong Kong, who defined themselves as Chinese. They first completed a measure of essentialism: Typical items included "It is largely our Chinese biological heritage which determines who and how we are". Next, they completed a measure of anger towards the Japanese in response to the Nanjing Massacre. A sample item is "When I think about how the Japanese have raped Nanjing during the war, I still feel angry". Similarly, they completed a measure of forgiveness, comprising items like "It is hard for Chinese people to have Japanese friends due to what the Japanese did to the Chinese". Finally, participants answered questions that assess the degree to which they felt connected to the victims.

If participants endorsed essentialist beliefs, they were more likely to feel anger towards the Japanese, and less inclined to forgive. These associations were mediated by the extent to which they felt connected to the victims.

Personal development

Forgiveness has also been shown to correlate with personal development and growth. That is, individuals who have explored their roles and identities in life, as well as committed to these changes, are more likely to forgive.

This possibility was demonstrated by Hill, Allemand, and Burrow (2010). In this study, participants completed a measure that assesses their disposition or inclination to forgive other people. In addition, they completed the identity style inventory. This questionnaire evaluates the extent to which individuals have explored their identity in the past, contemplating their roles, objectives, and aspirations. In addition, this questionnaire evaluates the degree to which individuals have committed to a specific role or purpose in their life. A measure of personality, underpinned by the five factor model model, was also administered.

Forgiveness was positively associated with previous exploration of roles and commitment to an identity, representing a form of personal development. Elevated levels of agreeableness and low levels of neuroticism partly mediated these associations.

Conceivably, if individuals have committed to a broader purpose in life, they might not be as sensitive to minor transgressions. They can accept some transient difficulties in the pursuit of more inspiring endeavors. Hence, they are not as sensitive, curbing neuroticism, increasing agreeableness, and manifesting as forgiveness. Alternatively, forgiveness might facilitate identity formation rather than vice versa.


Individuals are more likely to forgive someone who committed an offence that seems distant, rather than close, in time. In a study conducted by Wohl and McGrath (2007), participants reflected upon an offensive act they had experienced a month ago. Some participants were asked to indicate when the offense had transpired on a timeline that spanned from a couple of months ago to now. Other participants were asked to indicate when the offense had transpired on a timeline that spanned many months ago to now. If they specified the timing of this event on a timeline that spans many months, an event that unfolded one month ago seems closer in time. In this instance, participants reported less forgiveness towards the perpetrator of this event.

One of the implications of this finding is that forgiveness can be cultivated. Specifically, individuals should not be encouraged to reflect upon events that unfolded many months or years ago. They should instead be encouraged to focus their attention on positive events that immediately proceeded the offensive act.

Relationship value and exploitation risk

From an evolutionary perspective, individuals have evolved to punish, rather than forgive, people who could exploit them, primarily to deter such exploitation. However, they have evolved to forgive people who could be valuable to them in the future. In short, individuals should be more inclined to forgive someone who is unlikely to exploit them, but likely to be valuable, in the future.

Burnette, McCullough, Van Tongeren, and Davis (2012) undertook a pair of studies to verify this possibility. In one study, participants rated the extent to which they feel that someone in their lives could be exploitative. A typical item was ?I feel threatened by him or her?. In addition, they rated the degree to which they valued this relationship. A sample item was ?Our relationship is very rewarding to me?. Finally, they were asked to indicate the likelihood they would forgive this person in response to a series of transgressions. As hypothesized, if relationships were perceived as valuable, forgiveness was more likely, especially if exploitation threat was limited as well. The second study was similar, except exploitation threat was manipulated by asking participants to imagine a time in which this person behaved selflessly or selfishly. The same pattern of results emerged.

Process models

Enright and Fitzgibbons (2010) delineate a series of stages or processes that practitioners should apply to help their clients forgive someone. The first set of processes is collectively called uncovering. During this phase, practitioners should encourage people to:

The second set of processes is collectively called the decision phase. During this phase, people need to decide whether they would like to forgive. Practitioners should encourage people to:

The third set of processes is collectively called the work phase. During this phase, people learn how to begin their attempt to forgive. Practitioners should encourage people to:

The final set of processes is collectively called the deepening phase, in which individuals embed this concept of forgiveness. During this phase, practitioners should encourage people to:

Determinants of revenge

The motivation to seek revenge does, unsurprisingly, curb forgiveness (McCullough, Bellah, Kilpatrick, & Johnson, 2001). Several factors promote this motivation to seek revenge and thus stifles forgiveness.

For example, some individuals report elevated levels of rumination. In response to unpleasant events, such as a harsh criticism, they ponder about the situation for several days or even weeks. Each time they ruminate about this episode, they experience the feelings the event evoked--the anxiety, distress, frustration, or anger, for example. They become increasingly angry and hostile and, consequently, attempt to identify opportunities for revenge. Thus, rumination is inversely associated with forgiveness (McCullough, Bellah, Kilpatrick, & Johnson, 2001).

Several factors amplify this association between rumination and motivation to seek revenge, such as low levels of conscientiousness and agreeableness. When these traits are limited, self control diminishes& individuals cannot as readily regulate the effect of rumination on feelings of hostility and revenge (McCullough, Bellah, Kilpatrick, & Johnson, 2001).


Forgiveness partly represents the motivation to seek justice. As a consequence, when the concept of justice is primed, individuals report a greater propensity to forgive (e.g., Karremans & Van Lange, 2005).

Furthermore, whether people feel the world is just and fair also affects the likelihood of forgiveness. To illustrate, some people believe they tend to receive the rewards and recognition they deserve, called personal belief in a just world. As Lucas Young, Zhdanova, and Alexander (2010) showed, these individuals are not as likely as other people to behave impulsively or ruminate excessively. That is, they feel their efforts will be rewarded in the future, diminishing impulsivity, and also feel their problems can be solved, tempering rumination.

As their impulsivity and inclination to ruminate subsides, forgiveness is more likely. That is, because these individuals are not impulsive, they do not behave rashly and aggressively. They maintain strong relationships, enabling forgiveness. Similarly, because they do not ruminate, they are not as likely to inflate the impact of offenses. Consistent with these possibilities, Lucas Young, Zhdanova, and Alexander (2010) demonstrated that people who believe they receive the rewards and recognition they deserve are more likely to forgive other individuals as well as themselves--and this relationship was mediated by limited levels of impulsivity and rumination.

However, some people believe that individuals in general receive the rewards and recognition they deserve, called general belief in a just world. This belief, however, sometimes reflects an intolerance to uncertainty. That is, if people shun uncertainty and complexity, they like to perceive the world as predictable. So, they like to assume that everyone receives the rewards and recognition they deserve. This intolerance to uncertainty may evoke impulsive behavior and rumination, diminishing forgiveness. Indeed, the belief that individuals in general receive the rewards and recognition they deserve is negatively associated with forgiveness but positively associated with impulsivity and rumination (Lucas Young, Zhdanova, & Alexander, 2010).


A variety of interventions have been developed to promote forgiveness (for a review, see Lundahl, Taylor, Stevenson, & Roberts, 2008). Often, these interventions enhance empathy (Sandage & Worthington, 2010).

One common intervention is the empathy-oriented forgiveness seminar (McCullough, Worthington, & Rachal, 1997& Sandage & Worthington, 2010). Typically, participants describe times in which they felt hurt in response to an offense. Next, they consider various strategies to cope with these feelings, such as extracting lessons, meaning, and insights from this event. Third, they reflect upon an instance in which they were forgiven by someone else, inducing feelings of gratitude and humility. In addition, they consider the feelings and thoughts of the person who committed the offense, ultimately to generate a sense of empathy. Relative to a control group, six hours of this intervention, intended to induce empathy, was sufficient to increase the likelihood that participants would forgive the other person (Sandage & Worthington, 2010).

A more comprehensive example of this class was promulgated by Worthington (1998), called the pyramid model to REACH forgiveness. After defining forgiveness--contrasting this concept with other terms like reconciliation--participants are asked to recall (R) feelings of hurt in a safe rather than threatening environment. They attempt to understand the perspective and experience the feelings or emotions of the perpetrator, inducing empathy (E). They next identify an altruistic (A) act they could undertake in response& they might derive possible alternatives from times in which they had been the beneficiary of forgiveness. Then, these individuals commit (C) to this act of forgiveness as well as maintain or hold (H) this intention.

Wade, Worthington, and Haake (2009) showed this REACH intervention does indeed promote forgiveness. Nevertheless, a control intervention, in which participants learnt to reduce stress in various contexts, was virtually as effective in promoting forgiveness.

Another common intervention is related to self enhancement (McCullough, Worthington, & Rachal, 1997& Sandage & Worthington, 2010). The main difference between this intervention and initiates that focus on empathy is that participants consider how forgiveness would enhance their social life, emotional state, relationship, and physical health. They are informed that forgiveness can curb negative physiological reactions, for example. Again, compared to a control group, six hours of this intervention was sufficient to evoke shame towards withholding forgiveness and, thus, increases the likelihood that participants would forgive the other person (Sandage & Worthington, 2010

Molden and Finkel (2010), however, showed the effect of various interventions may depend on the regulatory focus of individuals--that is, the extent to which they orient their attention to aspirations and opportunities, called a promotion focus, rather than duties and complications, called a prevention focus. To illustrate, when individuals adopt a promotion focus, they focus their attention on the benefits they can gain from strong relationships--children, insight, admiration, and so forth. Individuals expect these benefits only if they trust their partner. Thus, when individuals adopt a promotion focus, trust should be positively related to the extent to which they value their relationships and thus promote forgiveness.

In contrast, when individuals adopt a prevention focus, they focus their attention on the losses they would like to avoid. They might, for example, imagine the regret they would feel if their relationship was dissolved now. Individuals are especially likely to feel this sense of loss would be pronounced if they were committed to the relationship. Therefore, if individuals adopt a prevention focus, commitment should be positively related to forgiveness. Molden and Finkel (2010) uncovered empirical findings that substantiate these arguments.

Neurophysiological mechanisms

A few studies have examined the neurophysiological mechanisms that underpin forgiveness. For instance, a perpetrator who harms another person inadvertently is usually forgiven, almost immediately. The inclination to forgive rather than blame someone who harms another person inadvertently is especially pronounced when activation of the right temporo-parietal junction is elevated (Young & Saxe, 2009).

Many studies have examined the role of this region. To illustrate, when participants read stories about the thoughts, knowledge, and perspective of someone, activation of this region is elevated. In contrast, reading about the physical sensations of someone else, like hunger, or the traits of this person does not activate this region to the same extent (Saxe & Powell, 2006). Accordingly, the right temporo-parietal junction seems to represent the capacity to understand and process the cognitive beliefs and perspective of someone else. This region is critical to recognize that a behavior was not intentional.

Measures of forgiveness

Two main categories of measures in this domain have been distinguished: trait and state measures of forgiveness. Trait measures assess the extent to which individuals exhibit a tendency to forgive someone after this person has committed some offensive or inappropriate act. State measures assess the degree to which individuals forgive a specific act or violation of some expectation.

Brown (2004), for example, utilized the Tendency to Forgive Scale. This scale comprises four items, such as "I tend to get over it quickly when someone hurts my feelings?". Alpha reliability was .73.

Furthermore, Berry, Worthington, O?Connor, Parrott, and Wade (2005) developed the Trait Forgiveness Scale, which comprises 10 items. A sample item is "I can usually forgive and forget an insult".

Thompson, Snyder, Michael, Rasmussen, Billings, Heinze, et al. (2005) developed a measure of forgiveness that comprises three subscales. One of the subscales is called self forgiveness, reflecting the degree to which participants forgive themselves for errors and shortfalls, with items like "I hold grudges against myself for negative things I've done". The second subscale is called other forgiveness, indicating whether they forgive other people in response to offensive or inappropriate behavior& a sample item is "If others mistreat me, I continue to think badly of them". Finally, the third subscale is called situation forgiveness. This subscale indicates whether individuals can accept problems that arise from factors that nobody could control or prevent, comprising items like "Eventually I let go of negative thoughts about bad circumstances that are beyond anyone?s control". Internal consistency is .78, .83, and .86 for the three subscales respectively.

To assess state forgiveness, a scenario is sometimes contrived. Participants, for example, might play a game with someone, who is actually a confederate. This confederate might breach the rules, eliciting resentment (e.g., Eaton, Struthers, & Santelli, 2006a).

Afterwards, participants complete a series of questions--often the transgression related interpersonal motivations scale (McCullough, Rachal, Sandage, Worthington, Brown, & Hight, 1998). This scale comprises two subscales. The first subscale, avoidance, in which individuals plan to evade this person, is represented by seven items like "I keep as much distance between us as possible". The second subscale, revenge, comprises five items such as "I?ll make him/her pay". Typically, trait and state measures of forgiveness are correlated with each other (e.g., Brown & Phillips, 2005& for an exception, see Eaton, Struthers, & Santelli, 2006a).

One of the problems with these measures is that individuals tend to overestimate the likelihood they will forgive someone. That is, they often predict they would forgive someone in some context& however, when the situation arises, they are less forgiving than anticipated. As Barnes and Brown (2010) showed, this inclination of individuals to overrate the probability they will forgive is especially pronounced in religious people: Religious individuals often value forgiveness& because they like to perceive themselves as individuals who fulfill their values, they inflate their propensity to forgive.

Association between hostility and control

Some individuals, in contexts in which they feel hostile or angry, effortlessly mobilize resources to regulate their behavior. That is, even the subliminal presentation of words like "hostile" evoke this capacity. This capacity ensures that individuals can override their inclination to act aggressively and to forgive the person instead.

Wilkowski, Robinson, and Troop-Gordon (2010) developed a procedure that can assess this inclination to mobilize resources in response to hostile cues. That is, a series of words appeared on a screen, half of which were associated with aggression, such as assault, demean, hurt, and punch. The other words were related to housecleaning. Their task was to decide whether the word was related to aggression or housecleaning. After each word, they completed a flanker task. Specifically, 5 letters appeared, like qqpqq. Participants needed to decide whether the middle letter was a p or q.

If individuals can mobilize effort and inhibit unsuitable behavior, they participants can readily disregard the distracting letters. That is, even if the distracting letters differ from the middle letter, their reaction time is not prolonged appreciably. In some participants, this capacity to disregard the distracters is enhanced after they are exposed to a word that relates to aggression. This pattern indicates that hostility or anger mobilizes the resources to control behavior.

This measure predicted the capacity of individuals to forgive someone else and regulate their aggression (Wilkowski, Robinson, & Troop-Gordon, 2010). That is, the mobilization of resources in response to hostile cues enables individuals to forgive another person.


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