Forgiveness is said to be a voluntary act in which a person allows a change of negative feelings toward an offender. Yet as we have discovered, the act forgiveness is extremely complicated, emotional, and sometimes impossible. Some people assume that if forgiveness is granted than the transgression is somehow condoned or excused. This is of course not the case. Enright and Coyle (1998) defined what forgiveness is not: forgetting, reconciliation, condoning, dismissing, and pardoning. Enright & Fitzgibbons (2015) developed a meaningful process of how to forgive. One of the first steps is to understand why forgiveness matters. It is said to reduce depression, anxiety, unhealthy anger, and bullying. It also increases quality of life, focus, cooperation, and self esteem. While many researchers have focused on the many reasons why people should forgive, the question of why many choose not to forgive continues to be pondered. Thus, it is crucial to further understand the implications about people’s wiliness to forgive and whether gender, age, personality, and religion play important roles in predicting forgiveness capabilities.
One of the first factors that may affect forgiveness capabilities are the roles of gender. Konstam, Chernoff, and Deveney (2001) found that higher levels of guilt-proneness, anger reduction, and detachment predicted forgiveness for women while low pride and high shame-proneness predicted forgiveness for men. Researchers Miller, Worthington, & McDaniel, (2008) also noted gender differences between men and women relating to forgiveness and that perhaps, women have a greater propensity to forgive.
Men may respond more to Kohlberg’s (1984) justice-based morality and response to transgressions through fighting, vengeance, or justice. In this model, Kohlberg (1984) described the model stage for men as the desire for “law and order to be upheld and to maintain social order.” He described the model stage for women as, “the desire to preserve relationships and live up to the expectations of others,” (Kohlberg, 1984). In response, Gillian (1994) theorized that women are more oriented toward an ethic of care and desire to preserve relationships and to respond to the needs of others. She proposed males are more oriented toward a need for justice rather than a consideration of fairness and equity, (Gillian, 1994). Thus, the desire for women to maintain relationships may lead them to have a greater propensity to forgive than men.
Another consideration between gender differences relating to forgiveness is culture. Hook, Worthington, & Utsey, (2008) referred to forgiveness in collectivist cultures as collectivist forgiveness. “Collectivist forgiveness is motivated by an attempt to promote and maintain group harmony rather than to obtain feelings of inner peace that result from emotional forgiveness of the self,” (Hook, Worthington, & Utsey, 2008). In individualistic cultures, women engage more in the collectivistic forgiveness than males (Hook, Worthington, & Utsey, 2008). In individualistic cultures, evaluations of injustice are heightened, which affects whether, when and how to forgive. Forgiveness can be dependent on whether men or women see themselves hurt or offended (Miller, Worthington, & McDaniel, 2008). Culture can be a possible confound in relation to gender differences in forgiveness (Miller, Worthington, & McDaniel, 2008). It is difficult to determine whether the individual is affected by their cultural expectations or gender roles.
A third consideration for gender differences is the religious practice of men and women. Religion has been shown to have a major impact on forgiveness and gender. Females are found to be more religious than men (Roth & Kroll, 2007). This suggests a gender difference in forgiveness considering how forgiveness is often labeled as a religious value. Thus, because women are more religious, they are more likely to use religion to promote personal forgiveness. Considering forgiveness is often labeled as a religious value, women are more likely to employ their religion to promote personal forgiveness.
The proclivity for forgiveness across the lifespan is also important to consider. Researchers Toussaint, Williams, Musick, and Everson (2001) used a large random sample of U.S. adults age 18 and over to examine the general tendency to forgive in different ages across the lifespan. They found forgiveness was lowest in younger adults but comparable between midlife and older adults. This study also showed that the relationship between forgiveness and psychological well-being was stronger among midlife and older adults than among younger adults. Cheng & Yim (2008) also found a positive relationship between age and forgiveness noting that as age increased so did the ability to forgive. Age was also found to be a moderator in the effects of closeness, apology, and significant others’ attitude, (Cheng & Yim, 2008). A total of 180 participants were recruited from a wide range of age groups. The results of their study showed that older adults were more forgiving than younger adults (Cheng & Yim, 2008).
Krause and Ellison (2003) found within the older adult population those who forgive others more easily have a greater sense of well-being than those who did not find forgiveness to come easily. They also reported increased depression and anxiety for older adults who didn’t forgive. Ingersoll-Dayton, Torges, & Krause, 2010 found unresolved feelings have implications for geriatric mental health. Confronting painful memories associated with their own transgressions results in feelings of remorse, inability to accept themselves, and feelings of despair (Ingersoll-Dayton, Torges, & Krause, 2010).
Malty, Macaskoll, and Day (2001) found younger adults who fail to forgive experience more neuroticism, depression, and anxiety. In a study by Ghaemmaghami, Allemand, and Martin (2011), participants were asked to share a personal account of a transgression from their life in which they had to forgive another person. In the sample, most frequent personal transgressions mentioned were: divorce, separation, being left by one’s partner, infidelity, reproaches, imputations, false claims, and being treated unfairly. Their data points toward age differences in experiencing these transgressions. On average the older adults in the study shared they had experienced the transgression further back in time than the younger adult participants. Thus it is possible to confer older adult had the opportunity to work through the issues or it could be a generational affect of higher rates of partner disputes and divorce.
Researchers, Brose, Rye, Lutz-Zois, & Ross (2005) examined how the five-factor model of personality predicts the ability to forgive beyond other empirically established predictors such as religiousness and empathy. It is not surprising that negative personality traits such as anger, hostility, and neuroticism are consistent barriers to a person’s ability to forgive (Brose, Rye, Lutz-Zois, & Ross, 2005). On the other hand positive traits such as agreeableness was found to have a positive correlation between the ability to forgive others. In their study, Brose, Rye, Lutz-Zois, & Ross (2005) conducted their research using 275 undergraduate students from participants from a Catholic university. Neither age nor severity of the transgression correlated with the forgiveness measures. Agreeableness and extraversion were found to be positively correlated with forgiveness. None of the other five-factor domains were significantly correlated with forgiveness measures.
Interpersonal relationships can have a significant influence on mental health especially when considering responses to transgressions (Berry and Worthington, 2001). While many studies show married people tend to be healthier than unmarried people, not all marital relationships provide support and benefits to health and well-being (Berry and Worthington, 2001). Unforgiveness is an interplay of negative emotions involving anger, bitterness, resentment, fear, and hostility (Worthington & Wade, 1999). Forgiveness replaces the negative emotions of unforgiveness by positive, love-based emotions. These emotions include empathy, compassion, sympathy, and affection for the other. Berry and Worthington, 2001 in their study had the thirty-nine participants report whether their relationships were happy or unhappy. The couples who reported unhappiness displayed an increase in cortisol production and greater mental health problems. They differentiated between forgiving and unforgiving responses to interpersonal transgressions.
Most research has been conducted with the consideration of interpersonal forgiveness (Strelan, 2006). Researchers Thomas and collegues, 2005 argued for a third focus of dispositional forgiveness, which is situations. Individuals may blame a situation such as a debilitating illness or accident on surrounding circumstances. They may refer to this as ‘life’ or and ‘unjust world’, or ‘fate’. An example could also be blaming someone for consequences of fate such as getting in a car accident when the friend recommended they do so. They may also blame someone for not taking appropriate measures such as wearing a seatbelt. Thomas et. al. (2005) also found like relational forgiveness, individuals with a disposition to forgive situations were less likely to be depressed, angry, and anxious, and were more likely to be satisfied with life.
Forgiveness is spiritual, transcendent, and timeless. Playing a crucial role in a person’s religious activity, religious affiliation and teachings, and imitation of God (Escher, 2013). Thus it is probably the most influential factor in a person’s ability to forgive. It causes people to revisit religious or spiritual memories that have been long forgotten (McCullough & Worthington, 1999). Most religious practices make some mention about how forgiveness is defined, and how important it should be for the tradition. “Religious perspectives on forgiveness influence the psychological processes involved in forgiveness” (Rye, et. al, 2000).
Escher (2013) proposed that a person who has internalized a belief system in which forgiveness is a moral necessity, is socialized into forgiving practices and has a greater propensity to forgive. These internalized beliefs and practices require a specific socialization originating from religious leaders and teachers. The socialization helps the person to develop schemas, or sets of expectations, hypotheses, and concepts formed which include certain moral directives about the necessity of forgiveness, and coping skills bout how to forgive (Escher, 2013).
The monotheistic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam distinctly recognize the importance of practicing forgiveness (McCullough & Worthington, 1999). Forgiveness is a central element of God’s character for forgiving the sins of man. Christian writings suggest the continual need to seek forgiveness from people and from God (McCullough & Worthington, 1999). Islamic scripture also encourages Muslims to forgive others and to desire to be forgiven rather than searching for justice or retaliating (McCullough & Worthington, 1999).
McCullough and Worthington (1999) further examined the discrepancy of forgiveness with people who practice religious and offered four explanations for this inconsistency: social desirability, aggregation and specificity in measurement, the distal location of religion in the causal chain leading to forgiveness, and recall bias. The first possibility is that religious individuals are really no more forgiving than nonreligious individuals; however, they desire to be more forgiving and feel they should be more forgiving given their religious convictions. This leads religious individuals to rate themselves as more forgiving than they actually are. A second possibility is that the general measures that rate general religiousness in these studies do not correlate appropriately with measures that examine more specific religious behavior. The discrepancy therefore may be due in part to conceptual and semantic problems in the scales that are being used together. Another possibility is that there are other social and cognitive factors that influence the nature of an individual’s disposition to forgive more than religious commitment.
Religious commitment may not influence an individual’s act of forgiveness as closely and significantly as was originally thought. The last explanation concerns recall bias. The current measures used in examining state forgiveness may lead individuals to recall certain biases that lead the connection between religiosity and forgiveness to remain unclear. In conclusion, as is seen, though there is a plethora of research examining the relationship between forgiveness and religion, there is little research examining how forgiveness relates to more specific religious constructs rather than religiosity in general.
Considering the deep links between religion and forgiveness it would be assumed that the greater religious involvement suggests an internalized need to practice forgiveness. Escher (2013) suggested a person’s orientation toward God and religion as a set of habits, practices, and values. From these practices a person may develop a collaborative orientation toward the divine and look to God for guidance, desire a union with God, and affirm God’s presence in their interactions with others (Escher, 2013). Thus the person is dependent on their relationship with God for solving problems and look to God for help in everything that they do. This in turn leads these individuals to follow God’s example of having a forgiving disposition. These people who believe in the divine have a desire to imitate god and develop a propensity to forgive.
For many people with religious affiliation have a strong connection between prayer and forgiveness. Prayer is used as a tool to process emotions and build a strong connection to God. Vasiliauskas & McMinn (2013) hypothesized that prayer would facilitate a person’s process toward forgiveness. In their study, the participants who practiced prayer experience greater empathy toward the offender and had an increase perspective about their ability to process forgiveness. This leads to a conclusion that prayer is also a necessary element of incorporating forgiveness into religious practice.
While there is no simple way to determine whether a person has an aptitude toward forgiveness certain factors may contribute to the possibility that a person is forgivingly fit. Factors such as gender, age, personality characteristics, and religion all play a significant role in making forgiveness present in a person’s life and practice. Despite these underlying factors playing an influence it is important to remember forgiveness can be cultivated and practiced. Forgiveness is a process not a singular action that a person either posses or doesn’t. It is a way of thinking and framing experiences in order to gain greater perspective and growth. While this may come extremely easy for many due to either these listed factors or a deep sense of practicing forgiveness there continues to be many individuals who struggle with this concept. Perhaps they at some point will develop a greater ability to forgive or learn a new way of looking at the world. Either way, forgiveness is something that will continue to be practiced and worked to be better understood.