Why You Cannot Always Trust the Scientific Data on Forgiveness

When I teach a graduate seminar on the psychology of forgiveness at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, we as a class frequently read scientific studies with the word “forgiveness” in the title and then we commence critiquing the science that is reported. Too often, we find that what is supposed to pass for forgiveness actually is quite suspect and the conclusions should not be taken at face value. For example, when we forgive, we do so toward persons, not situations. To forgive is to willingly decide to be good to those who have not been good to the forgiver. The one who forgives has been treated unjustly by a person or persons and tries to reduce negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and increase positive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors toward the offending person. Forgiveness does not mean to excuse, to necessarily forget, to necessarily reconcile, or to abandon justice. So, if a scientist, as an example, has a scale of “forgiveness” that asks the participants if they forgive situations (not persons, but situations), then this researcher is not studying forgiveness at all in this context, regardless of how many times the word is used.

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In this essay, I want to critique one study (out of four in the article mentioned below) which appeared in this published paper:

Luchies, Laura B. and Eli J. Finkel, James K. McNulty and Madoka Kumashiro, “The Doormat Effect: When Forgiveness Erodes Self-Respect and Self-Concept Clarity,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2010), vol.98, no. 5, 734-749.

In their first study of the paper, they presented a “forgiveness” scale to newly married couples. The researchers continued to assess the couples in forgiveness, self-respect, and the degree to which each member of the couple showed “agreeableness” toward one another. The assessments lasted for five years and the conclusions by the authors are as follows:

“For participants who tend to forgive their spouse, the trajectory of self-respect over time depended on the spouse’s level of agreeableness…….The doormat effect subhypothesis was fully supported in that, for high forgiveness individuals whose spouse was low in agreeableness, greater forgiveness predicted significantly diminished self-respect over time.”

In other words, beware of forgiving unless the one you are forgiving has an agreeableness with you. Otherwise, you tend to devalue yourself and so forgiveness is dangerous.

Here is a critique of that study, that should give the reader of it pause in accepting the conclusions:

The forgiveness scale had nothing to do with actually forgiving the spouse because there were five vignettes that were made up. These were hypothetical situations that did not necessarily occur within the marriage, such as “failing to mail some important papers for the self, making a mess of the house.” There are two problems here: 1) The researchers were not assessing actual offenses and so there was no true construct of forgiveness toward the spouse being measured and 2) there were only five made-up stories and as you can see in the two examples above, they hardly constituted major violation of ethics for the most part.

The most serious problem in this study is the fact that the researchers never discerned what each participant meant by the word “forgiveness.” Some of the participants probably, when asked, would have said that to forgive is to “just let the incident go.” Others might have said that to forgive is to see the justification for what happened, so it really was not an injustice at all because of an extenuating circumstance. We, as the readers, just have no idea what each person means by the word “forgiveness,” so we cannot be sure if each participant was answering the questionnaire correctly. Even if many were answering it correctly, we still need to remember that these are made-up scenarios, and people may respond very differently to the hypothetical than to the real injustices against them.

Is there a “doormat” effect to forgiveness? If there is, it has yet to be accurately demonstrated. We should not give forgiveness a bad name by ambiguous science.


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