Forgiveness versus revenge
From an article by Greater Good Magazine
Everyday maltreatments can threaten people’s basic sense of being human. Can victims restore their sense of humanness after it has been damaged by an offense and, if so, how?
Studies compared forgiving and taking revenge as responses to victimization. Each study revealed that, compared with revenge, forgiveness was more effective at rehumanizing the self; indeed, forgiveness produced feelings of humanness that nearly exceeded levels experienced by non-victimized participants. One study further revealed important downstream predictive consequences of a restored sense of self-humanity following forgiveness - less self-harm, a greater sense of belonging to the human community, and greater importance of one’s moral identity.
In one experiment, 546 participants were asked to write about a time when they had been wronged by someone else. They wrote about a variety of events, such as being the recipient of a mean-spirited joke, being belittled or insulted, or experiencing infidelity in a relationship. Participants were then asked to write a letter to the other person. Some were invited to forgive the person, while others were instructed to get back at them—in other words, to get revenge. Writing the letter was optional.
After writing a forgiving or vengeful letter, people rated their own self-humanity, the sense that they had human traits such as intelligence, warmth, and morality, by considering statements such as “I felt like I was open minded, like I could think clearly about things” and “I felt like I was emotional, like I was responsive and warm.”
For people who wrote a letter expressing forgiveness, the researchers found that their levels of self-humanity were higher than people who wrote a revenge letter. Additionally, those who forgave reported lower inclination toward self-harm.
In other words, forgiving has benefits for those of us who have been hurt. As the researchers suggest, “These benefits are especially meaningful because forgiving—although not easy—is under the control of the victim to give unlike, for instance, an apology from a transgressor.”
The researchers saw similar findings in another experiment with college students, who imagined a scenario where a co-worker insulted their work presentation. Even just imagining this hurtful interaction decreased their feelings of self-humanity, compared to those who imagined a positive interaction with a co-worker. However, after they imagined forgiving their co-worker, their levels of self-humanity increased again, as high as those of students who hadn’t imagined being insulted at all. But when students imagined taking revenge by excluding their co-worker from a party invitation, they remained dehumanized by the imagined insult.
Why was forgiving beneficial? Although there are many possible explanations, the researchers suggest that one possibility is that forgiving helps us to see ourselves as moral. In fact, the more students saw their actions as moral, the less dehumanized they felt.
Of course, not every offense is one that we will feel ready to forgive. However, this new study points to situations (especially those petty grudges we’ve been holding on to for too long) when forgiveness has benefits - to ourselves.
Karina Schumann, associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh says, “Forgiveness is not condoning the original offense”. One way to go about forgiveness, Karina explains, is to think about the context that might have caused someone to act the way they did. Psychologists have found that we tend to attribute our own behaviour to situational factors but attribute other people’s behaviour to their dispositions. In other words, we think that if we were rude, it’s because we were hungry, stressed, and tired, but that rude stranger in the grocery store was just a jerk. Trying to rethink our assumptions - and extend empathy to what the other person may have been going through - can be a good first step to forgiveness.
Deciding whether to forgive can be a complex process. However, when we are ready to extend forgiveness, research suggests that doing so may help to restore our feelings of humanity.
Read the full article here.
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