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Application of Social Psychological Theories to the Problem of Forgiveness

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Application of Social Psychological Theories to the problem of Forgiveness

Forgiveness has been considered as primarily a religious concept till about 1985 when there has been interest in forgiving as a psychological construct from social psychologists but increasingly from clinicians as well (Allan and Allan 2006). McCullough ,Pargament and Thoresen (2007) stated that there lacks a consensus among theorist and researchers on the definition of forgiveness (p.302). This essay will adapt Enright and Coyle (1998, as cited in McCullough et al 2007) definition that “forgiveness is when one who has suffered an unjust injury chooses to abandon his or her right to resentment and retaliation, and instead offers mercy to the offender” Recently, there has been attention on public apologies by governments Among others America has made official apologies for events such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Study conducted by America (Philpot & Hornsey, 2008). Kevin Rudd made a public apology to the Indigenous Australians in February (The Advertiser, 2008, p.6). One of the reasons for these calls for apology is that an apology is often reciprocated by an act of forgiveness. Worthington (2004) stated that forgiveness carries tremendous health and social benefits and Baumeister, Stillwell and Heatherton (1994, as cited in Pargment, McCullough and Thoresen, 2000, p. 138)suggested that forgiveness increases self esteem to both victim and perpetrator.

Social Psychological theories are applicable to the understanding of most real world problems including that of forgiveness. This paper will explain how some of the social theories, with empirical studies, can be applied to forgiveness in inter-personal and inter-group situations, specifically looking at the South African post- apartheid era and the Northern Ireland situation.

During the apartheid period in South Africa the white population was the dominant race in that country. Tutu (1999) wrote that the minority white population had control of what resources the non white population could access and thus violated their human rights (p. 10). The white population was high in social dominance orientation which is a motivation to have one’s group dominate other social groups (Myers, 2008, p. 312). The social dominance orientation by this population put the non-white people into a state of “learned helplessness”. Learned Helplessness Theory is the hopelessness and resignation learned when a human or an animal perceives no control over repeated bad events (Myers, 2008, p.526). Morton (2004) said that natural and traditional emotions of people who have been wronged are anger and revenge towards the wrongdoers ( p.104). In order to avoid the victims of abuse in South Africa harbouring the emotions of anger and revenge the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was set up as way to see justice to the events that had happened (Morton, 2004, p. 105). Cairns, Tam, Haewstone, and Niens, (2005) stated that “in post conflict reconciliation, intergroup forgiveness may play a crucial role in the helping groups in conflict put the atrocities of the past being them”. This implies that forgiveness plays a pivotal role in reaching reconciliation in intergroup conflicts.

The TRC gave the wrong doers and the victims a chance to employ the theory of self awareness. This theory is the idea that when people focus their attention on themselves, they evaluate and compare their behaviour to their internal standards and values (Aronson, Wilson & Arket, 1997, p.150). By employing the self awareness theory both parties become aware of what roles they played in the conflict, giving rise to, in some cases, the offer of an apology to the wronged party. Lazare (2004) said that apology and forgiveness are inextricably linked and that acknowledgement of an offence and remorse are part of a structure that make a sound apology (p.16). Luskin and Thoresen (1998 cited in McCullough, Pargament and Thoresen, 2000) explored the use of self efficacy theory, in a forgiveness intervention and their findings were that people with high self efficacy were more willing to forgive than those with low self efficacy. This theory describes when one is competent and effective, distinguished from self esteem, one’s self worth (Myres, 2008, p. 55)

The Chairperson of the TRC, Tutu, hailed the TRC’s success in getting people to forgive each other after confrontation between the victim and the wrong doer (Tutu, 1999, p. 219). However, an empirical study by Allan, Allan, Kaminer and Stein (2006) using the Enright Forgiveness Inventory (EFI) showed that the wrongdoers actions can influence the victims’ forgiveness process and they found that forgiveness was less forthcoming if the theory of situational attribution, was employed by the wrongdoer, the situational attribution theory is when one attributes their behaviour to social circumstances (Myers 2008, p.100) or when internal attribution was used, this is the inference that a person is behaving a certain way because of something about the situation they are in (Aronson et al 1997, p. 119) this could mean that they do not take full responsibility of their actions. The study by Allan et al (2006) also concluded that forgiveness was readily given when the perpetrators were truly sorry вЂ" the research did not have a definition of what truly sorry meant and they speculated that the victims could have referred to demonstrations of remorse. This study implies that the attribution theory does not necessarily enhance forgiveness.

Allan et al acknowledge that this study should be interpreted with caution as the sample was small and that the EFI was not standardized for African populations. The out-group homogeneity effect, that is perception of the outgroup, in this case the African population, as more similar to one another than the ingroup, in this case Alan et al who probably perceived themselves as similar to the Western population to which the EFI was standardised (Myers, 2008, p.325) might have influenced the way they carried out the study leading to the possibility of its less accurate result. However, it is possible that the study might not be accurate due to inaccurate translation of the questionnaire to a vernacular language. The study omitted to take into consideration victims who forgave the wrongdoers without confronting them but after employing the self reference effect, that is processing efficiently and remembering well information related to themselves, and verbally expressing their experience to the Commission as claimed by Tutu (1999, p.127). The study also stated that culture may have



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