In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Forgiveness

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works, Bibliographies, and Journals
  • Scholarly Books
  • Websites
  • Closing

Psychology Forgiveness
Everett Worthington
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 March 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0208


Forgiveness is one of many possible responses to injustice or offense. There are four types of forgiveness. Two types of forgiveness are more about being a recipient of an offense. Person-to-person forgiveness is the forgiveness of a person who was hurt or offended. Societal-organizational forgiveness is forgiveness offered by a legitimized spokesperson for some organization, and intergroup forgiveness involves individual group members’ forgiveness (or not) toward outgroup members. The legitimacy of an organization’s spokesperson for making statements about a groups’ forgiveness might derive from an elected or appointed position (such as a president of an organization) or from someone with recognized leadership authority (e.g., Gandhi, who spoke on behalf of classes of people despite having no position of authority). Two types involve wrongdoing. One is divine forgiveness (i.e., a sacred being granting forgiveness for offenses against the sacred). The other is self-forgiveness, which occurs in response to self-condemnation when one perceives a personal offense against another or failure to meet his or her standard. This article is concerned with the psychology of forgiveness. Most of the discussion will be focused on person-to-person forgiveness, with briefer coverage of societal-organizational (and intergroup) forgiveness. Divine forgiveness, which is most often the purview of religious theologies but has been investigated in a few studies, will be discussed briefly. Finally, self-forgiveness will be discussed all too briefly; it has gained traction as its own subfield within forgiveness studies. However, discussing self-forgiveness in depth would lead to loss of focus for the present article. Person-to-person forgiveness—what it is and how one might experience it—is the focus. A forgiver may experience two types of person-to-person forgiveness. Decisional forgiveness is a decision in which vengeance is foresworn and the intention is to treat the offender as a person of value. However, one might make such a decision and still experience frequent and severe bitterness and resentment. Emotional forgiveness is the emotional replacement of negative unforgiving emotions by positive other-oriented emotions. Person-to-person forgiveness and societal-organizational forgiveness are human experiences in the face of offenses or hurts. Forgiveness has been practiced for millennia, particularly in religious communities that value forgiveness, but it also has historically even been common among people who do not embrace religion. Some researchers have suggested that there are evolutionary roots to person-to-person forgiveness. Since the year 2000, over three thousand articles on forgiveness have been published, and many are composed of multiple studies. Scientific studies have provided understanding of forgiveness that the practice of forgiveness has not yielded, but religious and secular person-to-person forgiveness have provided common knowledge about how forgiveness occurs.

General Overviews

Enright and Fitzgibbons 2014 and Worthington 2006 describe two of the most complete theories and collections of research findings on basic and applied forgiveness research in books written (by one or more authors) with a single voice on forgiveness interventions. Worthington 2005 is an edited book on forgiveness as a field. Fehr, et al. 2010 is a comprehensive meta-analytic review of the entire field. Riek and Mania 2012 meta-analytically reviews research on forgiveness in couples, and Van Tongeren, et al. 2014 meta-analytically reviews research on intergroup forgiveness. Worthington, et al. 2015 summarizes, evaluates, and provides copies of the best measures of forgiveness. There are literally over one hundred trade books on forgiveness, many of which derive from religious or spiritual traditions.

  • Enright, R. D., and R. P. Fitzgibbons. 2014. Forgiveness therapy: An empirical guide for resolving anger and restoring hope. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

    This single-voice book presents Enright’s process theory of intervention in psychotherapy and applies it to a wide range of psychological disorders and problems. This is the best general book of psychotherapeutic uses of forgiveness.

  • Fehr, R., M. J. Gelfand, and M. Nag. 2010. The road to forgiveness: A meta-analytic synthesis of its situational and dispositional correlates. Psychological Bulletin 136:894–914.

    DOI: 10.1037/a0019993

    This qualitative review article is a comprehensive review of the basic research on forgivenness.

  • Riek, B. M., and E. W. Mania. 2012. The antecedents and consequences of interpersonal forgiveness: A meta-analytic review. Personal Relationships 19.2: 304–325.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-6811.2011.01363.x

    This is a meta-analysis of the way forgiveness is or is not contextualized in interpersonal relationships like marriages, families, and friendships.

  • Van Tongeren, D. R., J. L. Burnette, E. O’Boyle, E. L. Worthington Jr., and D. Forsyth. 2014. A meta-analysis of inter-group forgiveness. The Journal of Positive Psychology 9.1: 81–95.

    DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2013.844268

    This meta-analysis reviews research and quantifies the effects of research in the ways that forgiveness does or does not occur between groups. For example, the contact hypothesis suggests that people in different groups forgive more if they have more contact with each other, but this is only true when people do not hold their group identity defensively. Additionally, people forgive in-group members more readily than out-group members.

  • Worthington, E. L., Jr., ed. 2005. Handbook of forgiveness. New York: Brunner-Routledge.

    This book of qualitative review chapters by leading authors in the field comprehensively summarized the current status of the field in 2005. This might still be the definitive collection of scientific reviews even though much research has happened since the chapters were written. It was clearly the reference work that established the field as an empirical science.

  • Worthington, E. L., Jr. 2006. Forgiveness and reconciliation: Theory and application. New York: Brunner-Routledge.

    This book laid out the stress-and-coping theory of forgiveness in the most detail, and it provided ways that the theory could be used in psychological treatments from psychoeducation for people bothered by unforgiveness to more clinical psychological uses in individual psychotherapy, couple therapy, and group therapy.

  • Worthington, Everett L., Jr., Caroline Lavelock, Charlotte van Oyen Witvliet, Mark S. Rye, Jo -Ann Tsang, and Loren Toussaint. 2015. Measures of Forgiveness: Self-Report, Physiological, Chemical, and Behavioral Indicators. In Measures of personality and social psychological constructs. Edited by Gregory J. Boyle, Donald H. Saklofske, and Gerald Matthews, 474–504. Oxford: Academic Press.

    DOI: 10.1016/B978-0-12-386915-9.00017-6

    This chapter reviews all social psychological measures of forgiveness including self-report measures of trait and state person-to-person forgiveness, physiological measures, and behavioral indices that forgiveness might have occurred.

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