Alan Kirker


February 28th, 2023 by

In a book chapter titled “The Psychology of Forgiveness” (2002), psychologists Charlotte vanOyen-Witvliet and Michael McCullough write: “Many of the world’s religions have articulated the concept of forgiveness for millennia. Indeed, the proposition that people have been forgiven by God and, as a result, should forgive their transgressors is common to all three great monotheistic traditions” (p. 447).

Perhaps due to its clear enunciation throughout religion, social scientists had ignored forgiveness as a topic of study for several centuries. However, nowadays “it crosses cultures and continents, disciplines and dogmas… (and) is a much discussed subject in anthropological, sociological, political, and psychological circles” (2000, p. 1143).

In a paper titled “Forgiveness: A Review of the Theoretical and Empirical Literature” (1998), James N. Sells and Terry D. Hargrave highlight a Jungian perspective on forgiveness, both in relation to others and in regard to the self, that defines it as a restorative instrument which can relieve guilt and help with the integration of archetypes, “particularly themes from one’s shadow, into a transcending self” (p. 26).

Does becoming fully human, becoming whole, demand that we overcome a deeply ingrained tendency to retaliate or seek retribution? McCullough states that the “forgiving personality” includes aspects of agreeableness, emotional stability, and a positive correlation with spiritual well-being (2001, p. 195). As part of its redemptive benefits, the “forgiveness response” accordingly enables the cultivation of virtue, and the development of “prosocial” capital (2001) “that helps social units such as marriages, families, and communities to operate more harmoniously” (2002, p. 454). These important traits become “channelized” into characteristic human adaptations which, “as an interdependent people, we simply have too much at stake to ignore the promise of… as a balm for some of our species’ destructive propensities”. Research further suggests that forgiveness may foster coronary health by “reducing the adverse physical effects of sustained anger and hostility”, while people who do not forgive their offenders could incur emotional and physiological costs (2002, p. 452, 453, 455).

Although a forgiving response may garner “psychophysiological benefits, at least in the short term” according to vanOyen-Witvliet and McCullough (p. 453), the picture is more complicated as certain sensitive people will nonetheless suffer health costs despite their offering forgiveness, or that forgiving an abuser might yield negative “psychological sequelae” (p. 454). Sells and Hargrave declare that the dangers of such “pseudo-forgiveness” could include avoidance, denial, injustice, manipulation, or perpetuation of injury (1998, p. 25).

Scholars Frank D. Fincham and Julie H. Hall conceptualize “self-forgiveness” as a set of motivational changes through which individuals learn to accept themselves and become less likely to engage in self-punishing behaviours (2005, p. 622). However, in cases of “pseudo-self-forgiveness”, where feelings of guilt or regret and a corresponding acceptance of responsibility are not fully acknowledged, a tendency towards self-centeredness, and disrespect towards the victim, may be evident (p. 626 – 628).

Author and doctor Aaron Lazare recognizes that in contrast to the often difficult work of apology, forgiveness tends to provide an unburdening, both to the transgressor and to the victim:

“We experience forgiveness as a gift that releases us from the twin burdens of guilt and shame. In addition, if we are the ones doing the forgiving, we are proud of our generous behavior in forgiving the offending party. We had the power to forgive and we used it benevolently” (2004, p. 228 – 229).

Fincham, F. D., & Hall, J. H. (2005), Self-Forgiveness: The Stepchild of Forgiveness Research, in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, Volume 24, Number 5, (pp. 621 – 637).

Hargrave, T. D., & Sells, J. N. (1998), Forgiveness: A Review of the Theoretical and Empirical Literature, in the Journal of Family Therapy, Issue 20 (pp. 21 – 36). Oxford, United Kingdom: Blackwell Publishers.

Lazare, A. (2004) On Apology. New York, United States: Oxford University Press.

McCullough, M. E. (December 2001), Forgiveness: Who Does It and How Do They Do It?, in Current Directions in Psychological Science, Volume 10, Issue 6 (pp. 194 – 197). American Psychological Society, Blackwell Publishers Inc.

McCullough, M. E., & vanOyen Witvliet, C. (2002), The Psychology of Forgiveness, in Lopez, S. J., Snyder, C. R., (Eds.), Handbook of Positive Psychology, (Chapter 32, pp. 446 – 456). New York, United States: Oxford University Press.

Taft, L. (January 2000), Apology Subverted: The Commodification of Apology, in The Yale Law Journal, Volume 109: 1135, (pp. 1135 – 1160). New Haven, United States: The Yale Law Journal Co.


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