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Kim, J.; Song, J.; Freedman, S.; Enright, R. The Psychology of Forgiveness. Encyclopedia. Available online: https://encyclopedia.pub/entry/56624 (accessed on 26 May 2024).
Kim J, Song J, Freedman S, Enright R. The Psychology of Forgiveness. Encyclopedia. Available at: https://encyclopedia.pub/entry/56624. Accessed May 26, 2024.
Kim, Jichan, Jacqueline Song, Suzanne Freedman, Robert Enright. "The Psychology of Forgiveness" Encyclopedia, https://encyclopedia.pub/entry/56624 (accessed May 26, 2024).
Kim, J., Song, J., Freedman, S., & Enright, R. (2024, May 08). The Psychology of Forgiveness. In Encyclopedia. https://encyclopedia.pub/entry/56624
Kim, Jichan, et al. "The Psychology of Forgiveness." Encyclopedia. Web. 08 May, 2024.
The Psychology of Forgiveness
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Forgiveness psychology is a thriving field with ample implications for personal and relational well-being, community health, international relations, and politics. The aim of this entry is to briefly introduce the science of forgiveness that emerged over three decades ago and document its major developments. In this entry, definitions of forgiveness, the emergence of the scientific study on forgiveness, models of forgiveness, forgiveness education, measures of forgiveness, and benefits of forgiveness will be discussed, followed by several implications for consideration.

forgiveness moral virtue forgiveness psychology forgiveness education models of forgiveness measures of forgiveness benefits of forgiveness

I. Defining Forgiveness

Forgiveness is best seen as a moral virtue like wisdom, justice, fortitude, and temperance. Forgiveness is practiced in the context of another’s injustice as the forgiver abandons resentment and other negative emotions and develop goodness (such as understanding, compassion, generosity, and love) toward the offender.[1] As a moral virtue, forgiveness involves not only a decrease in negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors toward an offender but also a gradual increase in positive thoughts, feelings, and sometimes behaviors toward an offender. Forgiveness is often differentiated from other constructs such as condoning, excusing, forgetting, justification, pardoning, a simple reduction in anger, and reconciling. As a moral virtue, forgiveness is a process, and individuals might practice forgiveness to a varying degree, but its definition should not be reduced to its part(s), and its defining characteristics should not be determined by the imperfect reflections of forgiveness in finite human experiences.

Psychology often emphasizes how humans experience forgiveness and what happens when they forgive. Within psychology, forgiveness in a close relationship is described as a set of motivational transformations in the areas of retaliation, avoidance, and conciliation.[2] Also, it is proposed that forgiveness has two types: decisional forgiveness, which is making a behavioral intention statement not to hurt or avoid the transgressor, and emotional forgiveness, which replaces negative emotions with positive emotions toward the transgressor.[3] Here, emotional forgiveness is seen as an emotion-focused coping strategy that results in health benefits because forgiveness helps individuals to deal with the emotional burden of unforgiveness.[4] Due to varying opinions about the construct of forgiveness, some scholars proposed that forgiveness be defined as a psychosocial construct that, at the minimum, involves “intraindividual, prosocial change” toward the transgressor.[5] It is important to see nuanced differences between these proposed characteristics of forgiveness. For instance, the dichotomizing of forgiveness into different types is open to criticism as limited human experiences are not the same as the essence of what forgiveness is or it should entail.

Self-forgiveness and divine forgiveness are other forms of forgiveness examined in the literature. Self-forgiveness is the same moral virtue of forgiveness practiced toward the self when the self-forgiver violated a sense of justice.[6] Through self-forgiving, self-forgivers reestablish their personhood as they welcome themselves back into the human community. In psychology, it is proposed to have two processes: value reorientation and esteem restoration.[7] Divine forgiveness, theologically, refers to the absolution of sins by God or a Higher Power, but in psychology, it refers to the perception of being forgiven by God or a Higher Power and experiencing “a sense of peace in the relationship” with God.[8][9]

II. The Science of Forgiving Emerges

The first published empirically-based article with a specific focus on forgiving others was presented within the scientific community in 1989.[10] Previously, there had been published research on apology and people asking for forgiveness, but no research explicitly focused on people forgiving one another. In that first published empirical article on forgiving, the researchers reported that children's perceptions of forgiveness are not unconditional. Instead, their thoughts on when to forgive were influenced by factors such as their ability to get back at others, whether an apology is made, or their peers' opinions of them as a forgiver or a revenge-seeker. It was not until the developmental period of adulthood that participants thought of forgiving as unconditional, offering it whenever the participant saw it as a moral good. In other words, it took developmental maturity to realize forgiving does not require the offender to take any action, such as admitting guilt or offering an apology.

Four years later, the second empirical study on forgiving was published, with the Process Model described below, illustrating that older women, who suffered injustices, primarily from family and friends, could forgive and therefore reduce resentment toward the offending person and have more positive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors toward that person relative to participants in the control group.[11] Two years later, an article that reported findings from two brief forgiveness group interventions was published.[12] It was found that those who forgave had more conciliatory behavior, less feelings of retaliation, and more favorable feelings toward the one who acted unjustly compared with participants in the control groups.

Ideas on forgiveness began to expand to include the themes of self-forgiveness,[13] the broader tendency for people to forgive, possibly as part of their personality,[14] and even group forgiveness in which various communities forgive one another.[15] Publications on forgiveness education with children[16] and with adolescents[17] began to emerge in the early part of the 20th century as well.

III. Models of Forgiveness

A. The Process Model

The Process Model of Forgiveness[18] consists of 20 units across the four phases of Uncovering, Decision, Work, and Discovery, which are as follows: a) In the Uncovering Phase, people examine the effects on them of experiencing the injustice from another. These include anger, fatigue, and sometimes mistrust of others; b) The Decision Phase is the free will commitment to work on the process of forgiveness, knowing it is not excusing what happened; c) The Work Phase includes examining more widely who the offending person is, beyond the injustice. The forgiver tries to see the struggles in the person who offended, without excusing that person’s actions, and sees common inherent worth between the other and the self. This can lead to a “softened heart”[19] toward the offender and a willingness to show empathy and compassion; and d) The Discovery (sometimes called the Deepening) Phase includes finding meaning in what was suffered. During this phase, a paradox is realized in that by showing empathy and compassion to the one who offended, the forgiver experiences improved psychological well-being. Three self-help books are published based on this model.[20][21][22] These phases are flexible in that people can revisit earlier ones. For example, for a person who has moved through anger in the uncovering phase, if anger reemerges, the person can go back to the uncovering phase to work on further examining the anger.

B. REACH

Worthington[23] developed the REACH model, which is an acronym for the following: a) Recall the hurt. The person recalls the event, and if there is anger, the person is encouraged to b) Empathize with the one who offended. The forgiver tries to find a reasonable explanation of what happened, which may allow the forgiver to let go of the negative affect; c) Altruistic gift of forgiveness. The forgiver offers kindness to the offending person; d) Commitment to forgive. This can include a concrete action such as writing a letter of commitment to forgive, which is not sent, and is read aloud; and e) Hold on to the forgiveness. The point is to persevere in practicing forgiveness. A self-help book describing this procedure was written by Worthington[3] and do-it-yourself (DIY) workbooks[24] are available.

C. Forgive for Good

Not all models of forgiveness deliberately include the focus on the offended person. Luskin[25] emphasizes transcending what happened, finding new ways to achieve happiness, and elevating affect beyond the negative. Luskin[25] in his self-help book describes the following aspects of his model: a) Examine the injustice and discuss this with a trusted person; b) commit to feeling better with an emphasis on the self rather than the one who offended; c) try to find peace which may exclude reconciliation; d) realization that distress comes from the forgiver’s reaction, not from the injustice itself; e) soothe oneself when upset; f) realize that others will not behave according to one’s own expectations; g) find new ways of achieving goals in life; h) look elsewhere for love, beauty, and kindness; and i) change the grievance story.

IV. Forgiveness Education 

A. Story-based Approach

Personnel at the International Forgiveness Institute, Inc.[26] developed a forgiveness education curriculum for each grade from pre-kindergarten (age 4) through 12th grade (ages 17-18). The curriculum encompasses 12 to 17 lesson plans (up to one hour or less per week for each lesson) that teach students, through culturally relevant literature, about five aspects of forgiveness: inherent worth, kindness, respect, generosity, and agape love. See for example, Enright and Knutson[27]. Books and videos are used to bring the message of forgiveness and related concepts to the students. For example, in grade 1, students are introduced to Dr. Seuss’ classic picture book, Horton Hears a Who, in which the kindly elephant, Horton, keeps reminding the jungle animals that “a person’s a person, no matter how small.” In other words, Horton is teaching the theme of inherent worth or the unconditional value of all persons, even those who act unkindly. As a safeguard for the students, they are instructed that to forgive is not the same as to reconcile and when forgiving, a person should strive for justice. Students across the grade levels are introduced to this definition of forgiving: Forgiveness involves a willingness to abandon one’s right to resentment, negative judgment, and negative behavior toward one who unjustly injured us, while fostering the undeserved qualities of compassion, generosity, and sometimes even moral love toward this person. Because this is a story-based curriculum, the emphasis is on learning about forgiveness rather than working directly on forgiving those who hurt the students, although these opportunities are given at times to the students if they choose to forgive. Stories change from culture to culture so that the material is relevant within each context. As the students advance in the grade levels, particularly in high school, there is more of a focus on students’ forgiving those who have been unjust to them. As examples of this Story-based approach, see Ghobari Bonab et al.[28] and Taysi and Vural[29].

B. Process-based Approach

In contrast to the Story-based curricula, the Process-based curricula do not follow set lesson plans that teach the five aspects of forgiveness (inherent worth, kindness, respect, generosity, and agape love) through stories. Numerous researchers have contributed to the creation of different varieties of teaching the Process-based approach to students. The commonalities across all of them include: a) they use the same definition of forgiveness as described above in the Story-based approach and b) they all help the students to work through the four phases of the Process Model of Forgiveness described in the Models of Forgiveness section above. See, for example, Freedman[30] and Hui and Chau[31].

C. REACH Approach

As with the Process-based curricula, the goal of the REACH-based curricula is to assist the participants to forgive people who have wronged them. The curricula are based on the five steps of the REACH model described in the Models of Forgiveness section. Scholars who built their curricula based on the REACH model view each of the five steps as a learning target with associated sub-objectives and activities for the classroom. For example, the empathy step may encompass several lessons rather than just one. See, for example, Shechtman et al.[32].

V. Models of Forgiveness

Accurate and sound measurement of forgiveness and the forgiveness process impacts research on forgiveness, forgiveness therapy, and forgiveness education. Analysis and examination regarding the conceptualization and validity of forgiveness measures is important for the appropriate selection of forgiveness assessments by researchers, clinicians, and educators.[33] The following is a description of the most popular measures of forgiveness.

A. Enright Forgiveness Inventory (EFI)

The Enright Forgiveness Inventory (EFI)[34] is a self-report assessment of the degree to which one person forgives another who has hurt them deeply and unfairly. The EFI includes 60 items reflecting three subscales of 20 items each that assess the domains of Affect, Behavior, and Cognition. Each subscale is divided into two internal subscales composed of ten positive items and ten negative items. Example items include “I think he or she is worthy of respect” and “I feel warm toward him/her.” The range of scores for the 60-item EFI is from 60 to 360 with each subscale ranging from 10 to 60 with higher scores representing greater forgiveness. The inventory also assesses pseudo forgiveness with five additional items, scored separately to assess construct validity. The EFI has demonstrated good construct validity across diverse populations and cultural contexts as well as high internal consistency and test-retest reliability.[33] The EFI is currently available in 12 different languages. The Enright Forgiveness Inventory-30 (EFI-30) is a shorter version of the Enright Forgiveness Inventory. The EFI-30 maintains the validity and reliability of the original EFI, with cross-cultural studies confirming its psychometric properties and utility in assessing forgiveness efficiently.[35]

B. Transgression-Related Interpersonal Motivation Inventory (TRIM)

The Transgression-Related Interpersonal Motivation (TRIM-12)[36] is a self-report assessment based on the conceptualization of forgiveness as both the absence of revenge and avoidance responses (unforgiveness) toward an offender. The scale comprises 12 items with two subscales: a Revenge subscale of five items and an Avoidance subscale of seven items. Example items include: “I want to see him/her hurt and miserable” (Revenge subscale) and “I’d live as if he/she doesn’t exist” (Avoidance subscale). Low scores represent decreased unforgiveness. The TRIM-12 has demonstrated good construct validity and reliability across various samples. The TRIM-18[37] includes the 12 items on the TRIM-12 in addition to a six-item Benevolence scale that assesses increased benevolence motives. Sample items include, “Even though his/her actions hurt me, I have goodwill for him/her” and “Despite what he/she did, I want us to have a positive relationship again.” Adequate reliability and validity have been reported for the TRIM-18, which assesses forgiving behavior in addition to unforgiveness. There is a Spanish version of the TRIM-18, known as the TRIM-18-S.[38]

C. Heartland Forgiveness Scale (HFS)

The Heartland Forgiveness Scale (HFS) developed by Thompson and Snyder (2003)[39] is an 18-item self-report dispositional (trait) assessment of forgiveness that assesses how forgiving an individual is in general rather than toward one offender. Three subscales, including six items each, comprise the HFS, which are Forgiveness of Self, Forgiveness of Others, and Forgiveness of Situations. Example items include, “I hold grudges against myself for negative things I’ve done” (forgiveness of self), “I continue to punish a person who has done something that I think is wrong” (forgiveness of others), and “With time I can be understanding of bad circumstances in my life” (forgiveness of situations). High scores indicate higher levels of forgiveness, and scores on each subscale range from 6 to 42 with a total HFS score range of 18 to 126. Thompson et al.[40] report adequate reliability and validity of the HFS. The HFS has been translated into a variety of languages. Note that there is controversy surrounding the notion that one could attempt to forgive situations.

D. Enright Self-Forgiveness Inventory (ESFI)

The Enright Self-Forgiveness Inventory(ESFI)[6] is a 30-item self-report scale assessing self-forgiveness in the context of one specific wrongdoing. The scale is based on the theoretical foundation that forgiveness is a moral virtue and includes six subscales with five items, each assessing positive and negative affect, thoughts, and behavior toward the self. Five additional items at the end of the scale allow for the measurement of pseudo self-forgiveness (PSF). Example items include, “I feel positive toward myself,” “I think I am horrible,” and “Regarding my own behavior toward myself, I would care for my own well-being.” The total ESFI score can range from 30 to 180, with high scores indicating high self-forgiveness. The ESFI reports high internal consistency reliability and construct validity.

E. Self-Forgiveness Dual-Process Scale (SFDPS)

The Self-Forgiveness Dual-Process Scale (SFDPS)[7] is a 10-item self-report scale that aims to measure a person’s degree of self-forgiveness through two subscales: Value Reorientation (VRO) and Esteem Restoration (ERS). Self-forgiveness was conceptualized within the framework of Social Cognitive Theory and this scale was developed to assess self-forgiveness through positive value reorientation involving a cognitive shift to accepting responsibility for one's perceived offense, as well as the restoration of one’s self-esteem. Results from validation studies indicate good internal consistency reliability and construct validity.

VI. Benefits of Forgiveness

Forgiveness interventions with adults have been shown through randomized experimental and control group research to be beneficial in lowering anger, anxiety, and depression as well as increasing hope, according to four meta-analyses.[41][42][43][44] See also a critique of these meta-analyses by Baskin.[45] The statistical data are corroborated by case studies conducted in clinical practice.[1] According to intervention research (e.g., Lee & Enright[46]; Reed & Enright[47]; see also Worthington[48]), forgiveness significantly improves mental and physical health. As an example of a physical benefit, Waltman et al.[49] showed that cardiac patients had more blood flow through the heart when recalling the deep injustice against them following a forgiveness intervention compared to participants in the control group that had traditional cardiac health education.

Not every intervention works in the same manner. For instance, there is a difference in time between the Process Model of Forgiveness and the REACH methodologies. As reported in Wade et al.[44], in contrast to the Process Model, which is more long-term (average intervention duration of approximately 15 hours, maximum intervention duration of over 50 hours, across 20 articles), the REACH model is typically shorter-term (average intervention duration of about 6 hours, with the maximum being 12 hours, across 18 articles). Both of these models are empirically supported to work well within their own settings.

Forgiveness interventions show cross-cultural validity. For example, Muslim adolescents in Iran[28] and Pakistan[50], Arab-Israeli adolescents in Israel[32] and samples in Sierra Leone[51], Hong Kong[31], Taiwan[52], and the United States[53][30] have all demonstrated the efficacy of forgiveness intervention programs, including forgiveness education. Cross-cultural research indicates that forgiveness is a significant concept in most global cultures.[54][55][56]

Specific to forgiveness education, a meta-analysis[57] of 20 programs encompassing 1,472 children and adolescents was reported across 10 countries. The country breakdown was as follows: 40% North American, 25% East Asian, 20% Middle Eastern, and 15% European. The results across the 20 studies showed that the Story-based and Process-based approaches, described above, statistically significantly increased the students’ level of forgiveness toward those who were unfair to them and statistically significantly reduced anger. Even in the Story-based approach, as students primarily learned of story characters forgiving, the students were able to generalize their learning to personally forgive those who offended them and to decrease their level of anger in general, not just toward the offending other person.

VII. Conclusions with Implications 

The scientific community has observed unprecedented growth in research on forgiveness. Forgiveness as a moral virtue now has ample evidence suggesting its significance in promoting human well-being. As more researchers continue to investigate the topic of forgiveness, some cautions seem appropriate.

First, varying definitions exist in the literature, but all definitions cannot be equally true. Therefore, it would be important to carefully examine definitions of forgiveness and promote the ones that best capture the essence of forgiveness that is absolute, objective, and universal. One must not equate its part(s) as the whole of what it is. When examining other types of forgiveness, such as self- and divine forgiveness, again, it would be important to carefully define them and examine in what ways they are similar to or different from the definition of interpersonal forgiveness mentioned above.

Second, various models of promoting forgiveness exist, and not all of them foster forgiveness in the same manner. It would be valuable to examine what assumptions are held to be true for each model. The explicit or implicit assumptions underlying a given model are likely to determine the message conveyed to those guided through the process of forgiveness in that model. Also, it would be important to consider which models are evidence-based with empirical support for their efficacy.

Third, using appropriate forgiveness measures is of great importance to accurately assess variables that relate to forgiveness and whether forgiveness interventions elicit improvements in people forgiving others. Therefore, there is a need for ongoing refinement and critique to ensure that current measures align with theoretically accurate definitions of forgiveness, are culturally sensitive and inclusive, and take into consideration the broader social and contextual factors that impact forgiveness experiences.

Finally, the scientific evidence is clear that those treated unjustly can experience healing through forgiveness. Such substantial benefits are paradoxical because the forgivers experience healing as they develop goodness toward the offender. As forgiveness is implemented to produce therapeutic benefits, one must not forget that the virtue of forgiveness is practiced not only to benefit the one offended but also to offer mercy toward the offender. The latter involves courage to develop understanding, compassion, generosity, and even moral love toward the one who acted unfairly.

In conclusion, given the advancement of forgiveness research over the past few decades, briefly described above, considering more innovative ways to share the good news of forgiveness, including what it is, is not, what it means and looks like to forgive, and the benefits of forgiveness seems in order, which would require concerted efforts from various sectors of our society at all levels.

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  49. Martina A. Waltman; Douglas C. Russell; Catherine T. Coyle; Robert D. Enright; Anthony C. Holter; Christopher M. Swoboda; The effects of a forgiveness intervention on patients with coronary artery disease. Psychol. Heal.. 2009, 24, 11-27.
  50. Affaf Rahman; Rabia Iftikhar; Jichan J. Kim; Robert D. Enright; Pilot study: Evaluating the effectiveness of forgiveness therapy with abused early adolescent females in Pakistan.. Spirit. Clin. Pr.. 2018, 5, 75-87.
  51. Toussaint, L. L., Peddle, N., Cheadle, A., Sellu, A., & Luskin, F. (2010). Striving for peace through forgiveness in Sierra Leone. In A. S. Kalayjian & D. Eugene (Eds.), Mass trauma and emotional healing around the world: Rituals and practices for resilience and meaning-making (Vol. 2, pp. 251–267). Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger/ABC-CLIO.
  52. Lin, W. N.; Enright, R. D.; Klatt, J. S. A forgiveness intervention for Taiwanese young adults with insecure attachment. Contemporary Family Therapy: An International Journal. 2013, 35, 105-120.
  53. Suzanne R. Freedman; Robert D. Enright; Forgiveness as an intervention goal with incest survivors.. J. Consult. Clin. Psychol.. 1996, 64, 983-992.
  54. Katja Hanke; Ronald Fischer; Socioeconomical and sociopolitical correlates of interpersonal forgiveness: A three‐level meta‐analysis of the Enright Forgiveness Inventory across 13 societies. Int. J. Psychol.. 2012, 48, 514-526.
  55. Man Yee Ho; Helene H. Fung; A Dynamic Process Model of Forgiveness: A Cross-Cultural Perspective. Rev. Gen. Psychol.. 2011, 15, 77-84.
  56. Jacqueline Y. Song; Romulo Lustosa; Julio Rique; John Klatt; Lifan Yu; Nahlah Mandurah; Jichan J. Kim; Robert D. Enright; Expanding the cross‐cultural validity of the Enright Forgiveness Inventory short form. Clin. Psychol. Psychother.. 2024, 31, e2960.
  57. Hannah Rapp; Jiahe Wang Xu; Robert D. Enright; A meta‐analysis of forgiveness education interventions’ effects on forgiveness and anger in children and adolescents. Child Dev.. 2022, 93, 1249-1269.
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