Reflecting on 30 Years of Forgiveness Science

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This year marks an important 30th anniversary of which the world is hardly aware and from which the world has greatly benefitted. In 1989, the scientific community witnessed the first empirically-based published article in which there was an explicit focus on person-to-person forgiving. That paper appeared in the Journal of Adolescence with a focus on how children, adolescents, and young adults thought about forgiveness, particularly with a focus on what circumstances would make their forgiving more likely (Enright, Santos, & Al-Mabuk, 1989). Prior to this study, there was research on apology, or people seeking forgiveness, but never with a deliberate focus on people forgiving one another.
At the time, it seemed to us that forgiveness might be a controversial topic, suggesting perhaps weakness or an overly religious emphasis that would not be viewed favorably by the scientific community. So, we deliberately aligned this first-ever published study with a hot topic at that time: the moral stage models of Piaget (1932) and Kohlberg (1969), which focused exclusively on how people develop in their thinking about justice or what people deserve, not on the merciful side of the human mind or being good to those who are not good to you as in forgiveness. We found that children do not have an unconditional view of forgiving (offering it whenever they wished), but instead were influenced by whether or not they could get even with the other, if an apology occurred, or what peers thought of them if they did or did not forgive. It was only in the developmental period of emerging adulthood that people realized that they can forgive as an unconditional act of kindness toward an offender, without that offending person doing anything, such as showing remorse or apologizing.
The next empirical study of forgiveness that was published, appearing four years later, moved quickly into the clinical, counseling, and other mental health fields as the Process Model of how people forgive was introduced to the scientific community (Hebl & Enright, 1993). This study showed that as elderly females forgave family members for unjust treatment, then they (the forgivers themselves) became more psychologically healthier. This was the first published intervention study and it showed a cause-and-effect relationship between learning to forgive and the subsequent positive changes in psychological health.
Six years after the first publication, in 1995, other researchers began to publish as they, too, took up the empirical cause of forgiveness. McCullough and Worthington (1995) published another empirically-based intervention in which the goal was to change participants’ psychology through the process of forgiveness. I recall speaking frequently to Dr. McCullough about his interest in forgiveness studies while he was a graduate student, under the direction of Dr. Everett Worthington at Virginia Commonwealth University. It was great to be able to share our knowledge on the science of forgiveness, which we began to examine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1985, to aid in the advancement of this important area of research. Since then, three different meta-analyses have been published, because of the large number of studies which examine forgiveness models for psychological health, all concluding that as people learn to forgive, this statistically significantly improves psychological health (Baskin & Enright, 2004; Wade et al., 2014; Aktar & Barlow, 2018).

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