Senior psychology research examines effects of forgiveness

Release Date: 5/10/2012

When Amanda Anthony traveled with a group of fellow students to Europe as part of their Psychology in Europe course, she was already familiar with works by Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl. But after touring his home in Vienna and listening to the guide recount Frankl's holocaust experiences, Anthony said she found herself intrigued by Frankl's almost inexplicable capacity to forgive.

"Frankl was one of the main things that encouraged me," she said, "because he was able to find meaning in something so horrific as the holocaust. If he could find meaning in something like that, it made me wonder how [forgiveness] might affect people's cognitive processing."

Dr. Joel Hagaman and Amanda Anthony.

Amanda Anthony worked with Dr. Joel Hagaman to conduct a research study into the effects of forgiveness on cognitive processing.

In talking with her psychology advisor, Professor Karen Jones, Anthony learned that there hadn't been a lot of research into forgiveness, and she decided that it would make an interesting topic for her senior psychology seminar course. "A University of Miami research study shows that people with higher vengefulness scores ruminated more, were less forgiving, and suffer from higher stress levels," Anthony said. Working with her senior seminar instructor, Dr. Joel Hagaman, she looked at various aspects of the University of Miami study to design a method to test whether forgiveness affects how people think. Her hypothesis was that a person who has forgiven will more quickly recognize words associated with forgiving, while a person who has not will more quickly recognize words associated with revenge.

Because her study would involve human research subjects, Anthony was required get approval for the project from an institutional review board before she could begin. She sent her research proposal to the Institutional Review Board at University of Arkansas at Little Rock, which serves as the official IRB of record for Ozarks. Anthony said it took about a month for her to receive approval to begin her study, but with that initial hurdle cleared, she was ready to begin recruiting her test subjects.

"Participants were recruited from the Ozarks student population," she said, "and they had to be 18 years old or older." Anthony said the people who agreed to participate in the study ranged in age from 18 to 25, with the average age being 20 years old. As each participant arrived for their session, they signed a consent form, and Anthony explained the methods the study would use.

Each person was given two surveys, the first of which was a demographic survey. After completing this, each participant was asked to reflect on a recent transgression, and think about how they felt in the situation.

"They did not have to share what had happened to them," Anthony said, "but just had to remember what they felt towards that person." After recalling the transgression, they were given the second survey, the Transgression-Related Interpersonal Motivations inventory (TRIM-18). The TRIM-18 is a self-reporting inventory which asks a series of questions to measure avoidance motivations, revenge motivations, and benevolence motivations.

After each participant completed the TRIM-18, Anthony gave each a reaction time test using words that are considered as revengeful, forgiving, or neither. Using DirectRT, a software program designed for cognitive and perception tasks that require precise measurement of reaction time, Anthony showed each participant words like "retaliation," "warmth," "charity," and "counter attack" and recorded the time it took for the participant to classify each word.

Anthony observed what seemed to be a correlation between forgiveness and cognitive processing, as measured by the time it took to recognize various words. "For those participants who had forgiven (those who scored high in the category of benevolence motivations on the TRIM-18), they recognized forgiveness words more quickly," she said. But Hagaman said that interestingly enough, even the subjects who had not forgiven recognized the forgiveness words faster. "It may be the case that if we dig around in the data more, we'll understand why that is," he said.

Anthony said that while on the surface her results appeared to support her hypothesis that forgiveness does have an effect on cognitive processing, the results are actually inconclusive because they didn't reach the required degree of precision. She said that because of this, the differences could not be considered statistically significant. However, she said the study did reveal some other interesting things.

One of the most surprising was, that based on the TRIM-18 results, males were more revengeful than females. "But when it came to benevolence and avoidance, they were just one point different," she said.

Another interesting observation Anthony made was that it may actually be easier to forgive when the offense is committed by someone you know. "The majority of [participants] recognized the revengeful words, but I had one who said he only recognized forgiveness words," she said. "He told me had forgiven the person, who was a close friend."

After completing her study, Anthony believes there is definitely a need for further research into the subject of forgiveness. "When you hold on to something, it really affects you as a person," she said. "It affects how you deal with other people, because you have a negative outlook on life. It does affect your health - it can cause things like sleep deprivation." Anthony said she believes that through further study researches will begin to better understand why it is so important to truly forgive...not to simply justify what was done, or try to forget it. "You have to actually forgive the person," she said, "and that's a difficult concept because most of the time we just cut them out of our lives."

Anthony, who graduated in December 2011, is currently working with students at the Cass Job Corps in Franklin County, and hopes to complete her Master's degree in counseling in the future.