The Dark Side of Saying that Self-Forgiveness Has a Dark Side
A recent study by Peetz, Davydenko, and Wohl (2021) concludes that there is a “dark side” to self-forgiveness. They, in fact, use this term three different times in the journal article. The point of this blog is to challenge their view and to show that the statement is an over-reaction to their data.
Here is what they did in the study: They asked people who were entering a grocery store to fill out a self-forgiveness scale specifically regarding over-spending in the past and a scale that assesses beliefs about whether people can change their abilities or not. For the latter variable, the researchers were interested, for example, in whether participants believed they could or could not change their spending habits if they overspent.
Those who believe that people, including themselves, can change unwanted habits are called incrementalists. This issue of incrementalism is important in this research because the authors were hypothesizing that if people think that they cannot change their behavior of over-spending (they are not incrementalists), then they likely will be more cautious in how they spend relative to the incrementalists who might take the cavalier attitude that “I can always change bad behavior.”
So, the expectation in the research was this: Those who over-spent in the past and who now have forgiven themselves, and who think they can change, will have problematic spending on this new shopping venture. This is what the authors called—three times—the “dark side” of self-forgiveness.
So, then, what did they find? In Study 1, with over 100 participants, the statistical results were not significant. The findings approached significance in that those who forgave themselves and who are incrementalists (believing that they can change and so over-spending should not be that big of a deal) tended to spend more, but again it was not statistically significant.
In Study 2, they did a larger study with over 200 participants and found the exact same thing. There was no statistical significance for self-forgivers, who are incrementalists, to over-spend.
Upon their third try, they looked at spending relative to what was the pre-determined budget prior to shopping. Here they did find that those who self-forgave for over-spending in the past and who were incrementalists (thinking they could change and so the over-spending probably is not a big deal) did spend more than those who kept themselves in check because they were not incrementalists (in other words, they did not trust themselves to change spending habits as much as people with the incremental beliefs that they could change).
Yet, here is the bottom-line critique of this work: The authors never assessed: 1) whether or not the participants who spent more than they had planned had way-overdone the spending; 2) whether or not the spending was harmful to their budget or to the family’s budget; and 3) whether or not any true economic injustice was done by the purchase.
The average reported total amount spent by participants in Study 2 was $74.06. For the majority of people, this hardly would destroy the family finances. In other words, was this kind of spending harmful? Self-forgiveness takes place in the context of harm, of unjust treatment, often toward others, and is seen by the self-forgiver as unjust. Was this kind of spending in this study unjust? The authors did not ask the participants if they thought this was the case.
So, in the final analysis, we see that in one of three statistical tries, participants, who formerly have self-forgiven for over-spending and who think they can change their behavior, spend perhaps a little more than those who think they cannot change. How big is this difference and how serious is it for the family? Given the statistical failure in two out of three tries and given the small sum spent on the average ($74.06), it seems to me that calling this a “dark side” of self-forgiveness is not warranted, at least for now. Do you see how there is a “dark side” to exaggerating conclusions about the dark side of forgiveness?
Robert Peetz, J., Davydenko, M., & Wohl, M. J. A. (2021). The cost of self-forgiveness: Incremental theorists spend more money after forgiving the self for past overspending. Personality and Individual Differences, 179, 110902.