To Forgive Or Not To Forgive?

Psychologist Karina Schumann discusses the power of forgiveness in feeling whole again.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | March 7, 2022

A new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology weighs the benefits of forgiveness against revenge in repairing one's sense of self after a dehumanizing or victimizing experience.

To understand the differences between both approaches, I recently spoke to psychologist Karina Schumann, lead author of the research from the University of Pittsburgh. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to investigate the topic of forgiveness versus revenge?

In recent years, psychologists have discovered that people's perceptions of their own humanness can fluctuate, and that their basic sense of being human is vulnerable to negative treatment from others. Past work has demonstrated that cold and unempathic treatment can make people feel like objects lacking fundamentally human attributes such as emotionality and cognitive flexibility, and that disrespectful or condescending treatment can make people feel like inferior animals lacking refinement and higher cognition.

In my own pilot work, participants described a variety of powerful dehumanized sentiments in response to being harmed, such as:

  • Feeling like a toy rather than a human being
  • Being demonized, like they were being walked on
  • And feeling like they were a lower-class citizen

And so, to feel less human is to experience a loss of standing as an equal member of the human community.

Such feelings alone are, of course, of significant concern. But they also relate to other negative outcomes. Much like the devaluation that occurs when people dehumanize others, the feeling of dehumanization can predict a devaluation of the self for victims, including feelings of shame, a loss of dignity, and even reduced significance of one's very existence.

Given the consequences of reduced self-humanity, an important question is how victims' sense of humanness can be restored. Decades of research on forgiveness has demonstrated that it has a variety of psychological, physiological, and relational benefits. With my collaborator Greg Walton, I theorized that forgiving their transgressor would also enable victims to rehumanize themselves after a victimization experience.

Within the purview of your study, what does 'rehumanizing' oneself mean?

After a victimization experience, we feel that our sense of humanness has been damaged. Even everyday maltreatment — like being belittled by a boss or neglected by a friend — can feel dehumanizing.

We were interested in examining whether victims can effectively rehumanize themselves by restoring their sense of humanness to what it was before the dehumanizing experience occurred. And we found that forgiveness can do exactly that.

For example, in one of our studies, we included a no-offense control where some participants imagined themselves in a neutral interaction with a colleague. Other participants imagined being offended by a colleague, and then imagined either forgiving the colleague or taking revenge against them, depending on which scenario they received.

We found that participants who imagined taking revenge against the colleague remained in a dehumanized state (e.g., rated themselves as feeling less refined, emotional, and intelligent, and more superficial, cold, and animalistic) relative to those who imagined no offense occurring, whereas participants who imagined forgiving the colleague felt just as human as those who imagined no offense occurring.

This pattern of results suggests that forgiveness can fully rehumanize victims after their sense of humanness has been damaged by an offense. Of course, it is important to go beyond imagined scenarios, so we replicated the rehumanizing benefits in other studies using real offense and forgiveness/revenge experiences.

In your opinion, what is it about forgiveness that aids the process of restoration of one's self-humanity? What makes it better than revenge?

Forgiveness is a transformative process that involves releasing negativity toward the transgressor and possibly increasing positivity and feelings of benevolence towards them. It is considered a moral response rooted in the virtues of mercy, unconditional love, and generosity, and, because of its prosocial nature, it is treated as morally superior to a strict adherence to justice.

Because forgiveness involves a prosocial response to a transgressor, victims who choose to forgive might feel they are acting in accordance with moral human values of acceptance and concern for others. And because morality is an attribute that is central to being human, we predicted that forgiveness would be experienced as a morally elevated — and therefore distinctly human — response.

We found strong support for this prediction. People who forgave felt that they had acted in line with moral values, which in turn allowed them to feel rehumanized.

What about revenge, though? Revenge is the act of inflicting hurt or harm on someone for a wrong that one has suffered at their hands. On the one hand, victims who take revenge might feel rehumanized because they exerted dominance and control over the transgressor, which is in line with the self-enhancing human value of achieving power. In addition, because victims who take revenge often believe they are upholding justice, they might feel they are acting in line with this important value.

On the other hand, there are also reasons why revenge might not feel rehumanizing. People may experience revenge as uncivilized, destructive, or antisocial behavior that violates moral values. Given these competing possibilities for revenge, we hypothesized that revenge would be less rehumanizing than forgiveness. And again we found support for this prediction across five studies.

Your research also suggests that forgiveness has long-term benefits that persist well after the victim has forgiven their transgressor. Could you expand on that?

We didn't test long-term benefits of forgiveness, but we did test whether being able to rehumanize oneself was associated with other beneficial outcomes in the same session. Specifically, we found that people who felt rehumanized because they had forgiven their transgressor, in turn, felt a stronger sense of belonging to a human community, indicated that their morality was more central to who they are, and indicated a lower propensity toward self-harm.

The benefits we saw on these downstream outcomes suggest that rehumanizing the self through forgiveness can have meaningful impacts on how people treat themselves and others.

What advice would you have for an individual experiencing reluctance in forgiving their transgressor?

First, I would wonder where that reluctance was coming from. Is it because they feel the offense was too severe to be forgiven or because they feel the transgressor is unremorseful? Is it because the transgressor has hurt them too many times before and they fear the harmdoing will continue to happen? Or is it more that they personally have a difficult time letting go of resentment after being harmed by someone? Depending on the specific barriers someone is facing, they might not be ready to forgive, and they might not feel that forgiveness is healthy for them.

If you're in a situation like this, you might ask yourself what your personal barriers are, and reflect on how remaining in an unforgiving state is affecting your personal wellbeing, the other person, and your relationship with that person. If you then decide that you might be ready to begin the process of forgiveness, you can begin by reflecting on the incident that you are having trouble forgiving.

Reflect on the emotions and thoughts you have about what happened. Do you feel you have an accurate understanding of the transgressor's actions and what caused them to do what they did (if not, perhaps a conversation with them could be helpful)? Are there ways in which you can relate to and empathize with the transgressor's actions? Have you been on the receiving end of compassion and forgiveness after hurting someone? How did that feel? Is your relationship with this person worth investing in? If so, the value that relationship holds in your life might be something to focus on. If not, you might instead focus on how it might benefit you to release anger and resentment toward someone. And if you choose to engage in this process, understand that forgiving does not mean excusing the transgressor or releasing the transgressor from being accountable for their behavior.

Where would you like to see research on forgiveness go in the future?

No matter how positive we think a psychological process or behavior is, there are always circumstances under which it can have less positive or even negative effects. Forgiveness is generally thought of as being really beneficial — not only for the people receiving forgiveness, but also for those offering forgiveness.

That said, there is some research showing circumstances under which forgiveness might not be as beneficial (e.g., when trying to stop abuse from recurring in a romantic relationship, McNulty, 2011; when the forgiveness feels undeserved because the transgressor is unremorseful, Strelan et al., 2016). I think the field has a lot of work to do in determining the conditions under which and the people for whom forgiveness is beneficial versus harmful, as well as whether those effects might depend on the way in which someone experiences and offers forgiveness.

For example, you could imagine that forgiveness that comes in the form of the victim sweeping the problem under the rug without addressing the problem with the transgressor might lead to the transgressor feeling they can harm the victim again with little consequence. But if the victim directly addresses the problem with the transgressor and makes clear that their forgiveness is conditional on behavioral change, the transgressor knows they are being held accountable for their behavior, even while receiving forgiveness. Because forgiveness can take different forms, I would like to see psychologists work on understanding the consequences of these different forms across diverse situations.

I'd also love to see a stronger focus on understanding how people can move themselves toward forgiveness in circumstances when withholding forgiveness is to their own detriment. When designing these interventions, it's really important that the victim feels a sense of choice in their decision to forgive, and that they empower victims to willingly engage in a process of forgiveness.