Forgive and forget

“…the most beautiful thing that man can do is to forgive a wrong”, wrote Jewish rabbi, Eleazar of Worms (1176-1238). It may once have been strictly theological territory but now psychologists are turning their attention to understanding forgiving. It’s hoped research in the area could aid conflict resolution and there’s also emerging evidence that failing to forgive could be bad for your health (e.g. see Berry, J.W. & Worthington, E.L. (2001). Journal of Counselling Psychology, 48, 447-455).

Now Louise Barber at Sheffield Hallam University and her colleagues have investigated what aspects of anger and rumination (i.e. dwelling on things) might impede people’s ability to forgive. Two hundred university students filled out several questionnaires probing their readiness to forgive, their tendency to re-enact angry episodes in their mind, to harbour thoughts of revenge, to dwell on past injustices they’ve suffered and to dwell on the reasons why they’ve been treated badly in the past.

Considering these factors all at once, Barber’s team found that it was specifically people’s tendency to experience frequent fantasies of revenge, agreeing with statements like “I have long living fantasises of revenge after the conflict is over”, that predicted they would also report finding it harder to forgive other people. The researchers said “Getting back at that person and thoughts and daydreams of a violent nature may inhibit the likelihood of forgiving”.

In contrast, when it came to forgiving themselves, Barber found it was specifically people’s tendency to experience frequent angry memories, agreeing with questionnaire statements like “I ponder about injustices that have been done to me”, that predicted they would also report finding it hard to forgive themselves. “It seems that people who ruminate about events from a long time ago and still get angry also do so in relation to themselves and the mistakes that they’ve made”, the researchers said.

“For practitioners dealing with forgiveness issues in therapeutic settings, encouraging the release of angry memories may be one way of reducing self-blame; or ameliorating thoughts of revenge may be helpful in interventions to promote forgiveness in interpersonal conflict”, Barber’s team concluded.

Barber, L., Maltby, J. & Macaskill, A. (2005). Angry memories and thoughts of revenge: the relationship between forgiveness and anger rumination. Personality and Individual Differences, 39, 253-262.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.