By Emma Young
If someone else has treated you badly, what are the best strategies to overcome it and move on?
Of course, there has been a tremendous amount of research in the field covering everything from overcoming a romantic breakup to dealing with the aftermath of the Civil War. Now a new study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and AwarenessUnder the direction of Saima Noreen from the University of De Montfort, a special study is being carried out into how different types of forgiveness towards an abuser can help people who are deliberately trying to forget an unpleasant incident.
As the name suggests, “deliberately forgetting” means actively trying to suppress memories of an unpleasant experience. Recent studies have shown that this reduces the negative emotions associated with it. Forgiveness has been researched in greater depth, and there is work that has found that forgiving the perpetrator helps (although, of course, not all victims feel able or willing to forgive, and forgiveness is not an integral part of recovery).
Noreen and her colleagues set out to investigate possible interactions between intentional forgetting and “decisive” and “emotional” forgiveness. Decision forgiveness means making the decision to forgive the perpetrator rather than seek revenge – in fact, making efforts to maintain a relationship – but still hold a grudge. In contrast, emotional forgiveness means getting rid of negative emotions towards the perpetrator and replacing them with positive ones.
In the first studies, the team presented this scenario to the online participants: Just as they want to move in with their partner, they discover that their partner is having an affair. Participants were then asked to forget about details associated with this hypothetical unpleasant experience (e.g., a list of adjectives describing the perpetrator). Some have also been directed to see the perpetrator either through emotional forgiveness (to “wish the perpetrator experience something positive or healing and focus his thoughts and feelings on empathy”) or through decisive forgiveness (to “see the perpetrator as someone who behaved badly “and that you made a decision not to repay her / him and to treat him / her positively rather than negatively.”) Others had no forgiveness intervention.
The team found that participants in the emotional forgiveness group were more likely than the other groups to forget the detail of the crime, if not the gist of it. These participants also reported feeling more psychologically removed from the crime.
However, these studies included hypothetical crimes. The team recruited 360 new participants for the final two-stage online study. In the first of two sessions, these individuals were instructed to write in detail about a time in their life when someone close to them had done something that deeply offended, hurt, or hurt them and that still made them angry or angry. They next rated various aspects of the experience, including the extent to which they had forgiven the perpetrator.
Between 7 and 11 days later, these participants finished the second session. This included the same three-group forgiveness intervention as in the previous studies. The team’s analysis found that for these participants, emotional, but not crucial, forgiveness was associated with greater forgetting of the details of the original transgression (though not the essentials). It was also associated with a shift towards reporting, with more forgiveness being given to the perpetrator.
“Taken together, our results suggest that the act of emotional forgiveness leads to a transgression being further removed psychologically, allowing victims to interpret the event on a higher and more abstract level,” the team writes. (In other words, keep the gist, but not all the details). “This high-level construct, in turn, promotes greater deliberate forgetfulness effects, which in turn encourage increased emotional forgiveness,” they continue.
This research supports some previous suggestions that forgiveness should take emotional form to function as a coping strategy. And there are clear potential implications for strategies to help people recover mentally from a crime. However, more work is clearly needed to explore this seemingly “virtuous circle” and to better control possible real-world implications.
– Carry on or let go? A path that explores the relationship between emotional and crucial forgiveness and deliberate forgetting.
Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) works at BPS Biomedarticles