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Here’s the best way to forgive and forget

By Emma Young

If somebody else has treated you badly, what are the best strategies for overcoming this, and moving on?

There has been, of course, an enormous amount of research in this field, in relation to everything from getting over a romantic break-up to coping with the after-effects of civil war. Now a new studyin the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, led by Saima Noreen at De Montfort University, specifically investigates how different types of forgiveness towards an offender can help people who are intentionally trying to forget an unpleasant incident.

As the name implies, “intentional forgetting” involves actively trying to suppress memories of an unpleasant experience. Recent studies have suggested that this lessens the associated negative emotions. Forgiveness has been more extensively investigated, and there is work finding that forgiving the perpetrator helps (though of course not all victims feel able or willing to forgive, and forgiveness is not an essential component of recovery).

Noreen and her colleagues set out to explore possible interactions between intentional forgetting and “decisional” vs “emotional” forgiveness. Decisional forgiveness is making the decision to forgive the perpetrator, and not to seek revenge — indeed, even to make efforts to maintain a relationship — but while still bearing a grudge. In contrast, emotional forgiveness involves getting rid of negative emotions towards the perpetrator and replacing them with positive ones.

In initial studies, the team presented online participants with this scenario: just as they are about to move in with their partner, they discover that their partner is having an affair. Participants were then encouraged to forget details  associated with this hypothetical unpleasant experience (e.g. a list of adjectives that described the offender). Some were also instructed to forgive the offender either through emotional forgiveness (to “wish that the offender experiences something positive or healing and to focus their thoughts and feelings on empathy”) or decisional forgiveness (“think of the offender as someone who has behaved badly and that you have resolved not to pay her/him back and to treat him/her in a positive, rather than a negative way”.)  Others had no forgiveness intervention.

The team found that participants in the emotional forgiveness group showed greater forgetting of the detail, though not the gist, of the offence than the other groups. These participants also reported feeling more psychological distance from the offence.

These studies involved hypothetical offences, however. For the final online, two-stage study, the team recruited 360 fresh participants. In the first of two sessions, these people were guided to write in detail about a time in their life when someone close to them had done something that deeply offended, harmed or hurt them and that still left them feeling angry or resentful. Next, they rated various aspects of this experience, including the extent to which they had forgiven the perpetrator.

Between 7 and 11 days later, these participants then completed the second session. This included the same three-group forgiveness intervention as in the earlier studies. The team’s analysis revealed that for these participants, emotional, but not decisional, forgiveness was associated with greater forgetting of the detail of the original transgression (though again not the gist of it). It was also associated with a shift to reporting feeling more forgiveness for the perpetrator.

“Collectively, our findings suggest that the act of emotional forgiveness leads to a transgression becoming more psychologically distant, such that victims will construe the event at a higher and more abstract level,” the team writes. (In other words, retaining the gist, but not all the detail). “This high-level construal, in turn, promotes larger intentional forgetting effects, which, in turn, promote increased emotional forgiveness,” they go on.

This research does support some earlier suggestions that to function as a coping strategy, forgiveness should take an emotional form. And there are clear potential implications for strategies designed to help people recover psychologically from an offence. However, more work is clearly needed to explore this apparent “virtuous circle”, and to get a better handle on potential effects in the real world.

Moving on or deciding to let go? A pathway exploring the relationship between emotional and decisional forgiveness and intentional forgetting.

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest