Published this month in Child Development1 (Volume 93, Issue 2, March/April 2022), the critique analyzed 20 randomized intervention studies of forgiveness education programs that were implemented during school years 1996 through 2021. These studies spanned demographically diverse geographic areas including North America, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.
The research, “A meta‐analysis of forgiveness education interventions’ effects on forgiveness and anger in children and adolescents,” was conducted by University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers Hannah Rapp and Jiahe Wang Xu (both graduate students in the Dept. of Educational Psychology), and Dr. Robert Enright, educational psychology professor and co-founder of the International Forgiveness Institute (IFI).
Other significant observations and findings in the just-published report include:
- Children and adolescents inexplicably experience hurt and conflict in their interpersonal relationships and can “benefit from learning more about what forgiveness is and the process of how to forgive.”
- Forgiveness education interventions “are effective regardless of whether participants have experienced severe or mild offenses or attend schools in economically disadvantaged areas.”
- Programs of both short and long durations “can lead to significant positive change in anger and forgiveness outcomes.”
- Children who forgive are more accepted by their peers.
- Positive results for students “echoed findings from previous reviews of forgiveness interventions with primarily adult populations.”
- Forgiveness education interventions are “significantly effective” whether they are facilitated by schoolteachers or by researchers.
- The forgiveness education curriculum and process developed by Dr. Enright2 and the IFI “yielded significant effects.”
Overall, the analysis presents strong evidence that “children and adolescents can benefit from forgiveness education interventions.” Read the full meta-analysis report.
1 Child Development is a 92-year-old bimonthly scientific journal published by the Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD). It is a vital source of information not only for researchers and theoreticians, but for a broad range of psychiatrists and psychologists, educators, and social workers in more than 60 countries around the world.
2 The Forgiveness Education curricula developed by Dr. Enright and the IFI for pre-k through 12th grade students is based on children’s story books. Those stories teach about forgiveness and other moral virtues and equip children with the knowledge of how to forgive a specific person who offends if they choose to do so. Lessons begin by educating participants about the five concepts that underlay forgiveness: inherent worth, kindness, respect, generosity, and agape love. During the program, participants read and discuss several age and culture-appropriate stories that display forgiveness between characters such as in The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo and in Horton Hears a Who! by Dr. Seuss.
I have a concern about forgiveness. As you know, there is a new political movement of giving oppressed people their due. For example, a school district in the United States had a ceremony with indigenous people, acknowledging that the school actually is on land that was taken from this oppressed group. If forgiveness is injected into this movement, I fear that the indigenous people will once again be persecuted as they give in to the oppression, gaining nothing.
I think you are misunderstanding what forgiveness is and what it is not. To forgive is not to excuse or to condone injustices. Instead, forgiveness is goodness offered to those who have not been good to the forgiver. This moral virtue can exist side-by-side with the quest for justice. In fact, forgiving, when people choose to do so, can rid the heart of resentment that can deeply compromise the well-being of individuals, families, and communities.
The first phase of a multi-million-dollar, multi-year forgiveness research project in three culturally distinct regions of the world is providing clarity to an ancient concept that researchers say could bring psychological health to individuals as well as peace and unity to families, communities, and countries.
“Agape love is an under-researched concept that has significant implications for harmonious relationships and good mental health,” according to forgiveness pioneer Dr. Robert Enright, an educational psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and co-founder of the International Forgiveness Institute (IFI). “The goal of this project is to define what agape love is and is not, and to develop accurate measures of agape so we can assess the degree to which a person understands and practices it.”
That 3-year research project is focused on incorporating agape love fundamentals with Dr. Enright’s Forgiveness Education Curriculum materials for grade school students. Working with 60 teachers and up to 1,200 elementary students in Northern Ireland, Israel (both Arabic- and Hebrew-speaking schools), and Taiwan, the research is being funded by the John Templeton Foundation which has been supporting research on forgiveness for more than 20 years.
Agape love is a concept found in at least eight world religions and dates back to the work of three Greek philosophers:
- Socrates (470 BC – 399 BC), who was among the first moral philosophers to espouse the theory of virtue ethics;
- Plato (428 BC – 347 BC), a student of Socrates who is the namesake of Platonic love; and,
- Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC), a student of Plato, who is called “the father of psychology.”
The influence of those three philosophers continued well into the 19th century, helped shape much of Western moral philosophy, and gained renewed interest with the modern advent of virtue ethics in the late 1950s. This “Aristotelian philosophical view of virtue ethics” was used by Dr. Enright’s initial research team (composed of UW-Madison and IFI researchers) to develop its definition of agape love:
“Agape love is a moral virtue in which a person willingly and unconditionally offers goodness, at a cost to the giver, to another or others in need.”
To further explain, the team added:
“There is a giving of the self to the other(s) that is: a) understood, b) motivated c) willed, and d) acted upon toward other people in such a way that the actions cost the one expressing that love. Because so much is given in agape, it follows that something is taken away from the one who engages in this form of love and such taking away might be needed energy, needed material possessions, needed comfort, and/or even needed safety. Yet, there is a paradox to agape: In the giving, there is psychological gain for the giver, including a sense of joy in the giving.”
That definition was the key element in the research team’s initial report called “The Philosophy and Social Science of Agape Love.” It was published this month in the latest issue of the Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, a quarterly publication of the American Psychological Association (APA).
In addition to examining the true meaning of agape love, the research report explores the characteristics of a moral virtue and delineates both the commonalities and significant differences between agape and other forms of love. It also provides an in-depth critique of existing social scientific love scales in preparation for a phase-two activity that will result in the development of a specific psychological agape love scale that is statistically reliable and valid and that has cross-cultural validity.
“Agape love is worth studying because, as a moral virtue, it challenges people to strive for betterment in their humanity,” the report concludes. “Agape requires heroic commitment to the betterment of others. As such, agape may aid humanity in reaching its highest level when people begin to deliberately, consciously, and willingly cultivate this moral virtue.”
The content of the agape and forgiveness curriculum across the three world zones will be described by the teachers themselves during the International Educational Conference on Agape Love and Forgiveness being held at the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus on July 19-20, 2022. Additional information about agape love and the conference is available at the Agape Love and Forgiveness website.
Dr. Robert Enright and the organization he founded, the International Forgiveness Institute (IFI), undertook their first foray into the peace movement in 1999. That was the year they worked with a national team led by the Rev. Jessie Jackson that convinced Yugoslav (now Serbia) President Slobodan Milošević to release three captive American soldiers during the Kosovo Conflict.
In 2002, Dr. Enright initiated a forgiveness education program in Belfast, Northern Ireland that has now been in operation for 20 consecutive years. His Belfast work is featured in the award-winning documentary The Power of Forgiveness. Dr. Enright started similar programs in Liberia, West Africa in 2011 and in Israel-Palestine in 2013. He now has such programs in more than 30 contentious regions around the world and an IFI Branch Office in Pakistan at the Government College University Lahore (GCU-Lahore, Pakistan).
Eight years ago, Dr. Enright was invited by the United Nations to join an international “Expert Group” tasked with responsibility for developing intervention models aimed at ending gender-based violence across the globe. His initial presentation to the United Nations Population Fund in New York City was titled “Forgiveness as a Peace Tool.” Just three weeks later, delegates at the United Nations Peace Conference in Geneva, Switzerland, voted to embrace forgiveness and education as essential tools in peacebuilding.
Since those early years of his career, Dr. Enright has developed scores of peace-education initiatives and research projects in some of the world’s most contentious areas. Two of those projects were published recently involving teachers in the case of China and adult clients in the case of Pakistan. Other research projects have demonstrated that children as young as 4-5 years are capable of absorbing the basics of forgiveness and making it a natural part of their early life.
In 2015, Dr. Enright accompanied Eva Mozes Kor, a survivor of the Holocaust, on a guest tour of US radio and television stations to promote peace through forgiveness. Ms. Kor, with her twin sister Miriam, was subjected to human experimentation under Josef Mengele at the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II yet she publicly forgave her tormentors.
During that tour, Ms. Kor repeatedly used this axiom:
“Let’s work together to heal the world through forgiveness. Not bullets, not bombs. Just forgiveness. Anger is a seed for war. Forgiveness is a seed for peace.”
In a 2018 guest blog that Ms. Kor wrote for this website, “My Forgiveness,” she writes that forgiveness can “improve life for everyone in the world.” Read Dr. Enright’s eulogy to Ms. Kor (upon her death on July 4, 2019): “In Memoriam: Eva Mozes Kor and Her Independence Day.”
In recognition of his contributions to the peace movement, Dr. Enright was awarded the Distinguished Peace Educator of the Year Award (2008-2009), from the Wisconsin Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies. In 2012, he received the Cecil Findley Distinguished Service Award for international peacemaking and was named a Paul Harris Fellow by Rotary International in 2016. Three years later he was awarded the 2019 Mazzuchelli Medallion from Edgewood College along with a pronouncement that “forgiveness, relevant in every age, may be one of the clearest paths to peace, individually and collectively, for our world today.”
While Dr. Enright was one of the first forgiveness research investigators to envision a path to peace through forgiveness, he says there is still much more work that needs to be done.
“We must double our efforts so that peace and forgiveness become a team that is routinely tapped in matters of conflict,” Dr. Enright says. “The flames of resentment can be extinguished by sound forgiveness programs.”
Read Dr. Enright’s essay in Psychology Today, “Reflecting on 30 Years of Forgiveness Science.”
Dr. Robert Enright, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has been studying the virtue of forgiveness for more than three decades. During that time, dozens of countries have been decimated by domestic infighting or by brutal war brought on by outside political entities. Millions of deaths have resulted.
Yet all the pain and suffering of those conflicts could have been avoided if forgiveness had been understood and employed as one of the options on the peace-keeping and peace-making table, according to Dr. Enright. And while no one can turn back the clock to erase our human frailties, he adds, future geo-political animosity can be curbed and peace achieved through forgiveness and forgiveness education.
“Forgiveness is the Rodney Dangerfield of therapy and politics in that too often it gets no respect,” says Dr. Enright. “This occurs, in my experience, because forgiveness is woefully misunderstood and then angrily dismissed. Such misunderstanding is tragic because it shuts down what may be the most powerful cure for the effects that emerge and remain after injustice rears its unwelcome head in relationships, families, communities, and nations.”
Dr. Enright, founder of the International Forgiveness Institute, is considered “the forgiveness trailblazer” (Time magazine – 1995) and “the father of forgiveness research” (Christian Science Monitor – 2002) He developed a 20-Step Process Model of Forgiveness (1993) and demonstrated its effectiveness in projects around the world. Seven years ago, he and psychiatrist Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons developed an empirically-based treatment manual, Forgiveness Therapy, that helped make forgiveness therapy a gold-standard therapeutic treatment like psychoanalysis and cognitive behavioral therapy.
After 35+ years of studying the moral virtue of forgiveness, he says he is convinced that forgiveness is the missing piece to the peace puzzle. He recently outlined his formula for peace in Ukraine and other world locations in three essays that were published this month in Psychology Today, the professional publication that has honored him with a dedicated column for his work:
Summary: A key issue for peace in Eastern Europe is to recognize not just political boundaries, but more importantly, the genuine personhood in people within and across those boundaries—a personhood that is so precious that it transcends nationalism. That can be accomplished through forgiveness education being deliberately incorporated into the schools and houses of worship throughout the region, a process Dr. Enright already has helped establish in more than 30 countries around the world. While forgiveness interventions have been shown in empirically-verified research to lower anger and enhance empathy, this process has yet to be tried in post war, post-accord societies, on a large scale with both children and adults, anywhere on the planet throughout all human history.
2. Why Do People Fear the Cure for the Disease of Resentment? (March 19, 2022)
Summary: Resentment is the deep anger that can be harbored within a person for decades with serious consequences for psychological and physical health. Research by Dr. Enright and others has shown that forgiveness is an empirically verified treatment that reduces that resentment, but which is often misunderstood and therefore rejected. Properly recognized and acknowledged, forgiveness should take its rightful place of front-and-center where there are severe injustices to be healed.
3. Understanding the Role of Forgiveness in Political Conflict (March 20, 2022)
Summary: Forgiveness education never begins during the heat of a political/military conflict but it must be included, instead of being ignored, as a crucial post-conflict building block. Reconstruction following war must focus on rehabilitating the heart, not just the infrastructure. By helping individuals reduce their anger and hatred, they will be more likely to be more open to traditional rehabilitation measures and can be set free from unhealthy resentment that will tamper any ongoing peace efforts. Importantly, people need to be drawn to forgiveness, not forced into it—as emphasized by the title of Dr. Enright’s first self-help book Forgiveness Is a Choice.
“Peace out there in the world is possible only when we have peace inside of us,” Dr. Enright concludes. “Mahatma Gandhi has said that if true peace is ever to be achieved in this world, if we are to make war against war, then we must begin with the children. It is time for forgiveness education to go viral and become ubiquitous.”
To read the complete version of each of Dr. Enright’s posts in Psychology Today, click on its title above.