Forgiveness vs revenge: Should you just... let it go?
Science is now confirming what the prophets have always preached: that it is better to forgive than seek revenge. But what about forgiveness done wrong? Take a look
Is forgiveness better or revenge? Results from a study by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh support what all the prophets have preached: that to forgive is simply better. But does that work for big grouses as well as petty ones? Can evening the score in small ways offer necessary release? Are there any exceptions to the rule?
First, to the largest kind of offence. In repairing one’s sense of self after a dehumanising or victimising experience, forgiveness outweighs revenge, found the study, which was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in March.
Why? “Forgiveness is considered a moral response rooted in the virtues of mercy, unconditional love and generosity. Because of its pro-social nature, it is treated as morally superior to a strict adherence to justice,” Karina Schumann, professor of psychology and lead author of the research report, told Wknd.
“Because morality is an attribute that is central to being human, we predicted that forgiveness would be experienced as a morally elevated response,” Schumann says. The study discovered a lot of support for this hypothesis. People who forgave felt that they had acted in line with elevated human values, “which in turn allowed them to feel rehumanised.”
In contrast, revenge is frequently viewed as antisocial, destructive and aggressive. “We reasoned that revenge would not be as re-humanising as forgiveness because it would not have the same capacity to restore people’s morality,” Schumann says.
To put this theory to the test, Schumann and her team conducted four studies comparing forgiveness and revenge as responses to victimisation. In Study 1, participants recalled a time when they either forgave or retaliated against someone who had wronged them severely. In Studies 2 and 3, they imagined being victimised by a co-worker and then forgiving or taking revenge against them. In Study 4, they wrote either a forgiving or a vengeful letter to a transgressor who had wronged them.
Each study revealed that, when compared with revenge, forgiveness was more effective in re-humanising the self. In fact, forgiveness produced feelings of humanness that were nearly as high as those experienced by non-victimised participants.
Participants who imagined taking revenge against their colleague rated themselves as feeling less refined, less intelligent and more superficial, cold and animalistic, relative to those who imagined no offence occurring. The results from Study 4 also indicated that the restored sense of self-humanity that came from granting forgiveness might have positive future consequences, including a greater sense of belonging to the community, a greater estimation of oneself, and a greater awareness of one’s moral identity.
But this is forgiveness done right. Can it be done wrong?
The study sees forgiveness as a transformative process, Schumann says. “Forgiveness is not burying your feelings about the offence, excusing the offence or releasing the transgressor from accountability for their actions. Forgiveness can take the form of the victim directly addressing the problem with the transgressor and making clear that their forgiveness is conditional on behavioural change, even while they express empathy and a desire to move forward.” In this way, the transgressor knows they are being held accountable for their behaviour, even while receiving forgiveness.
How great was the transgression? To what degree does one want to continue in the relationship? How safe is it to do so? These are key considerations when weighing what a post-forgiveness equation ought to look like.
In cases of more minor offence, it can help to ask: Are there ways in which I can relate to and empathise with the transgressor’s actions? Have I been on the receiving end of compassion and forgiveness after doing something similar? Is this relationship worth investing in?
“If the answer to that last question is yes, the value that relationship holds in your life might be something to focus on,” Schumann says, “If not, you might instead focus on how it might benefit you to release anger and resentment toward someone.” And forgive anyway.