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Answer by Tirumalai Kamala:

The American psychologist Frank Fincham (Page on www.fincham.info) wrote as recently as 2000 that forgiveness remained more the domain of theology, not psychology, “The relative lack of research on forgiveness has been attributed to its identification with theology (Fitzgibbons, 1986). Certainly it appears that forgiveness is a “goal commonly advocated by all of the world’s long- standing religions” (Thoresen, Luskin, & Harris, 1998, p. 164), but it has not thereby engendered hostility or disdain in the social sciences. Rather, it simply appears to have been considered insufficiently important or amenable to scientific study (McCullough et al., 1998a)”.

Studies on forgiveness per se
I found several recent studies that examined the value of forgiveness per se. One of the most compelling examples is Everett Worthington, a professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia, USA. In this Atlantic magazine article,The Surprising Benefits of Forgiveness, he recounts how he forgave the intruder who, on New Year’s eve 1995, bludgeoned his 78 year old mother to death and then raped her with a crowbar. Ironically, Worthington researches the psychology of forgiveness. How could he forgive the seemingly unforgivable, his own mother’s violation and murder? He says that over the next 24 hours he completely forgave his mother’s murderer using a five-step process he himself had developed, something he calls the REACH (Dr. Everett Worthington, VCU Psychology) method.

  1. Recall the incident, including all the hurt.
  2. Empathize with the person who caused the hurt.
  3. Altruistically forgive the one who hurt.
  4. Commit to publicly forgive.
  5. Hold onto forgiveness.

Worthington says he was helped in his effort to empathize, step 2, by the fact that after committing the atrocity, the intruder apparently ran from room to room, smashing all the mirrors with the crowbar. Worthington interpreted this as a sign that the intruder couldn’t bear to look at himself.

I think to make this forgiveness process work for oneself, it’s important to separate the easier cognitive (intellectual) from the more difficult affective (emotional) empathy.

Worthington has several peer-reviewed publications, including randomized control trials, on his forgiveness method.

  1. Harper, Quandrea, et al. “Efficacy of a Workbook to Promote Forgiveness: A Randomized Controlled Trial With University Students.” Journal of clinical psychology 70.12 (2014): 1158-1169.
  2. Lin, Yin, et al. “Efficacy of REACH Forgiveness across cultures.” Journal of clinical psychology 70.9 (2014): 781-793.
  3. Wade, Nathaniel G., et al. “Efficacy of psychotherapeutic interventions to promote forgiveness: A meta-analysis.” Journal of consulting and clinical psychology 82.1 (2014): 154.
  4. Exline, Julie J., et al. “Forgiveness, depressive symptoms, and communication at the end of life: A study with family members of hospice patients.” Journal of palliative medicine 15.10 (2012): 1113-1119.
  5. Watkins, David A., et al. “Forgiveness and interpersonal relationships: A Nepalese investigation.” The Journal of social psychology 151.2 (2011): 150-161.

Nathaniel Wade, an Associate Professor of Psychology at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, USA, one of Worthington’s former students, also studies the psychology of forgiveness. Biola University Center for Christian Thought
Ann C. Recine, a University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire teacher and Nurse Practitioner with a holistic private practice in Eau Claire, WI, USA, also researches on forgiveness. Recine, Ann C. “Designing Forgiveness Interventions Guidance From Five Meta-Analyses.”Journal of Holistic Nursing (2014): 0898010114560571.

Noreen et al (Page on st-andrews.ac.uk) start with Mandela’s example of choosing to forgive his captors and refer to recent studies that have examined the physiological benefits of forgiveness.
Page on niu.edu
Page on www.fincham.info

There are a couple of interesting theses from the Psychology Department at the University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland, USA.

The 2010 PhD level thesis by Ryan Fehr Page on umd.edu summarizes “studies have demonstrated that forgiveness facilitates life satisfaction (Karremans, Van Lange, Ouwerkerk, & Kluwer, 2003), reduces blood pressure (Witvliet, Ludwig, & Vander Laan, 2001), facilitates interpersonal cooperation (Fincham, 2000), and enhances victims’ general feelings of relatedness toward other people to pre-conflict levels (Karremans, Van Lange, & Holland, 2005). Taken together, these findings confirm that forgiveness enhances what is commonly perceived to be lost during conflict – well-being, cooperation, and relatedness”.

On the other hand, the 2011 Master’s level thesis by Lauren M. Boyatzi Page on umd.edu explores whether a perceived need for urgent cognitive closure drives the desire for revenge.

Some of the most heartbreaking medical accounts on forgiveness are in this study, Page on coh.org (see Table 3). They interviewed nurses on how those dying in their care dealt with the need for forgiving and forgiveness. Some of their narrative excerpts are profoundly moving:

We took care of a COPDer who was near EOL. Her daughter had moved to Hawaii (we are in NY). I had several discussions on the phone to the daughter about mom’s condition (She was the DPA.) I found out the reason why the daughter moved to Hawaii was to be far away from her mother as possible. I didn’t know her stepfather had sexually abused her. The daughter was feeling extremely guilty and didn’t know what to do. I encouraged her to forgive her mother and to let go. I explained to her it would help her mother on her journey as well. Several days later, the daughter called her mother and forgave her. After struggling several weeks with the COPD the patient was at peace and left us comfortably and at ease”.

I cared for a patient who was dying of the same syndrome his brother had. The brother was older and their single mother had the older brother get a stem cell transplant (only cure for their syndrome). The older brother died of complications from transplant. So she had decided not to do transplant for the younger brother. Then with the younger brother dying of sequelae of his syndrome, the mother felt incredible guilt that her decisions ‘‘led to both her sons dying’’. Her guilt and grief manifested as anger. So it took me a while to even process her real feelings. Once she admitted how she really felt, she could start working on ways to get her to forgive herself. I’m not sure that she ever really did”.

In the early 90s, I was caring for a 32-year-old man dying of AIDS. He had not had any contact with his family for many years. With the help of a social worker, he called his family and let them know he was dying. My experience was when an elderly man and woman (the parents) and a younger man (brother) stepped off the elevator. The men were in overalls and explained that this was the first time they had ever been out of Kansas. I walked them to the room and the brother immediately climbed into bed and lovingly cradled his brother. It was a very tender moment”.

Societal level forgiveness? One of the most powerful empirical examples is South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Truth and Reconciliation Commission (South Africa)

Studies comparing forgiveness and punishment
1. A useful starting point for older references is a 2014 peer-reviewed study by  Geert-Jan Will, Eveline A. Crone, and Berna Güroğlu from the Institute of Psychology, Leiden University in the Netherlands. “Acting on social exclusion: neural correlates of punishment and forgiveness of excluders.” Social cognitive and affective neuroscience(2014): nsu045, Page on researchgate.net.

2. Brown, Ryan P. “Measuring individual differences in the tendency to forgive: Construct validity and links with with depression.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 29.6 (2003): 759-771.

3. Brune, M., Juckel, G., Enzi, B. (2013). “An eye for an eye”? Neural correlates of retribution and forgiveness. Plos One, 8, e73519. Page on plosone.org

4. De Quervain, Dominique J-F., et al. “The neural basis of altruistic punishment.” Science (2004).

5. Exline, J.J., Baumeister, R.F., Zell, A.L., Kraft, A.J., Witvliet, C.V. (2008). “Not so innocent: does seeing one’s own capacity for wrongdoing predict forgiveness?” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94, 495–515.

6. Gunther Moor, B., Gu ̈rog ̆lu, B., Op de Macks, Z.A., Rombouts, S.A.R.B., Van der Molen, M.W., Crone, E.A. (2012). “Social exclusion and punishment of excluders: neural correlates and developmental trajectories.” Neuroimage, 59, 708–17. http://dare.uva.nl/document/2/10…

7. Gu ̈rog ̆lu, B., Will, G.-J., Klapwijk, E.T. (2013). “Some bullies are more equal than others: peer relationships modulate altruistic punishment of bullies after observing ostracism.” International Journal of Developmental Science, 7, 13–23. Page on researchgate.net

8. McCullough, M.E., Fincham, F.D., Tsang, J.A. (2003). “Forgiveness, forbearance, and time: the temporal unfolding of transgression-related interpersonal motivations.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 540–57. Page on www.fincham.info

9. McCullough, M.E., Kurzban, R., Tabak, B.A. (2013). “Cognitive systems for revenge and forgiveness.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 36, 1–15. Page on ucla.edu

10. Park, J.-H., Enright, R.D., Essex, M.J., Zahn-Waxler, C., Klatt, J.S. (2013). “Forgiveness intervention for female South Korean adolescent aggressive victims.” Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 34, 268–76.

11. Strobel, A., Zimmermann, J., Schmitz, A., et al. (2011). “Beyond revenge: neural and genetic bases of altruistic punishment.” Neuroimage, 54, 671–80.

12. Will, G.-J., van den Bos, W., Crone, E.A., Gu ̈rog ̆lu, B. (2013). “Acting on observed social exclusion: developmental perspectives on punishment of excluders and compensation of victims.” Developmental Psychology, 49, 2236–44.

13. Young, L., Saxe, R. (2009). “Innocent intentions: a correlation between forgiveness for accidental harm and neural activity.” Neuropsychologia, 47, 2065–72. Page on mit.edu

Methodological problems with some of these studies (actually problems with psychology studies in general)

  1. I’m skeptical about data from studies that incentivize volunteers to participate by paying them (Conciliatory gestures promote forgiveness and reduce anger in humans, Page on nih.gov, Page on researchgate.net) or giving them extra credit Page on www.fincham.info.
  2. A key problem in the research on forgiveness is the “measurement problem” (see pages 11, 32, 33 of this Masters thesis, Page on vcu.edu), i.e., how to distinguish between real/sincere and fake/pseudo self-forgiveness. In the former, we have to painfully work our way through the psychological, social and spiritual consequences of wrongdoing. In the latter, we let ourselves off the hook and excuse ourselves of blame for any wrongdoing. Available psychological measurement tools cannot separate real and fake self-forgiveness. I think the academic study of forgiveness would improve with an inter-disciplinary approach that measures physiological responses to distinguish between the genuinely remorseful and the cheaters. In fact, much of psychology research would improve with more objective criteria such as physiological assessments and follow-up on participants’ actual actions rather than relying solely or overtly on self-reporting.
  3. Shoddy statistics are the bane of much biomedical research including psychology research.
    Giner-Sorolla, Roger. “Science or art? How aesthetic standards grease the way through the publication bottleneck but undermine science.” Perspectives on Psychological Science 7.6 (2012): 562-571. Page on emilkirkegaard.dk
    Nuzzo, R. “Statistical errors: P values, the ‘gold standard’ of statistical validity, are not as reliable as many scientists assume.” Nature 506 (2014): 150-2.
    No one has done more to highlight this problem than Stanford epidemiologist John P. A. Ioannidis.
    Why Most Published Research Findings Are False

How to Make More Published Research True

What empirical psychology research exists about the value of punishment compared to forgiveness?