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.
False guilt occurs when you have not broken your own moral standards. For example, suppose you have to meet someone soon and you forget your car keys, necessitating that you go back into your home, find your keys, get the keys, and now you are late for the meeting. You did not intentionally try to be late for that meeting. You made an error and did not willingly break a standard of honoring the other person. Your acceptance of imperfection may be in order, but to deeply blame the self would be excessive and therefore in all likelihood is false guilt. Genuine guilt occurs when you have broken your moral standards and now you are feeling guilty until you make amends. As a final point here, sometimes unintentional errors can be serious enough to warrant guilt. For example, if you are driving in your car and texting on your phone at the same time, resulting in an accident, you should have been paying more attention to the driving. In that case, even without an intention to do wrong, the guilt would be genuine.
In your experience, are people more critical of others who are unjust or of themselves when they break their own standards?
I find that people are more critical of themselves than they are of others. Many people find it difficult to welcome themselves back into the human community once they have behaved badly. I discuss this issue in a Psychology Today blog centered on self-loathing here:
When The Christian Science Monitor called him “the father of forgiveness research” nearly 20 years ago (Dec. 19, 2002), Dr. Robert Enright, a University of Wisconsin-Madison educational psychology professor, had just completed what the news organization called “the first study ever to show a cause-and-effect finding regarding physical health. . . and forgiveness.”
Today, as Dr. Enright nudges close to 37 years of forgiveness study and interventions, his research tools and techniques have become the preferred instruments of social scientists and researchers around the world. To stimulate even further growth in the burgeoning field, the forgiveness pioneer is giving his research tools away at no cost and with no strings attached.
On April 20 of this year, Dr. Enright announced that the non-profit educational organization he founded–the International Forgiveness Institute (IFI)–would provide his highly regarded scientific research tools absolutely free to any forgiveness researcher who requested them. In just the four months since then, the IFI has received and fulfilled orders for 252 copies of his individual tool documents from researchers in 21 foreign countries and 27 US states.
The free research tools available from the IFI and the number of copies distributed since April include:
- The Enright Self-Forgiveness Inventory (ESFI) – 76 Requests
This measure is based on the conceptualization of forgiveness as a moral virtue. The ESFI is a 30-item scale featuring six subscales with five items each. Five additional items at the end of the scale allow for measurement of Pseudo Self-Forgiveness (PSF). Although several competing self-forgiveness measures exist, Dr. Enright’s is the only one that captures the idea that self-forgiveness is a moral virtue that includes behavior toward the self.
- The Enright Forgiveness Inventory-30 (EFI-30) – 85 Requests
This tool is a shorter version of the Enright Forgiveness Inventory for Adults that has become the interpersonal forgiveness measure of choice for research professionals in the U.S. and abroad since its development in 1995. The EFI-30 reduces the number of items from 60 to 30 for the purpose of a more practical assessment of this construct. Data from the United States were used in the creation of the new measure and applied to seven nations: Austria, Brazil, Israel, Korea, Norway, Pakistan, and Taiwan to develop its psychometric validation.
- The Enright Group Forgiveness Inventory (EGFI) – 44 Requests
The EGFI has 56 items across seven subscales with each subscale having eight items. Those subscales measure a group’s motivation and values regarding forgiveness, peace, and friendliness toward the other group. The instrument is a valuable tool that could enhance peace efforts in the world. The EGFI was validated and published earlier this year by Dr. Enright and a team of 16 international researchers who collected data from 595 study participants in three different geographic and cultural settings of the world—China and Taiwan, Slovenia, and the US.
- The Enright Forgiveness Inventory for Children (EFI-C) – 47 Requests
The EFI-C is an objective measure of the degree to which a child forgives another who has hurt him or her deeply and unfairly. It is a 30-item scale similar to the 60-item adult version and is presented orally to very young children and in writing to those who can read well. Thanks to a researcher in Pakistan, the EFI-C is now available in the Urdu language—the native language of an estimated 230 million people, primarily in South Asia.
“Making these tools available to researchers at no cost is one way to grow the repository of forgiveness knowledge,” Dr. Enright explained. “This area of moral development has produced significant advancements in the areas of education, medical treatment, and therapy, so why not encourage others to help expand that information base?”
“There’s no getting around it – forgiveness is good for you and holding a grudge is not.”
-The Christian Science Monitor
- Learn more and order Dr. Enright’s free tools on the Forgiveness Research Tools page.
- Read how the EFI-30 was tested and validated in 8 countries around the world.
- Read the entire forgiveness article in The Christian Science Monitor.
I have read your views that to forgive for my own sake is honorable because it centers on self-care. I, though, have a different reason for forgiving. I want to forgive so that I am acting in a consistent way with my faith. God asks us to forgive and I want to honor that. Forgiving enriches my life and those around me. Do you think self-care is more important than my views on this?
No, I do not think that forgiving for the sake of self-care is more important than your reason for forgiving. In general (but certainly not always), I tend to find this: At first, people are highly motivated to forgive to get rid of the suffering of emotional pain. Eventually, people develop other reasons to keep forgiving and to forgive other people for offenses. One such new development is exactly what you are saying, to forgive to be consistent with one’s strongly held beliefs from faith. So, these two reasons for forgiving are not mutually exclusive. The one (the reason from faith) often emerges once the inner wounds begin to heal.