The Science of Forgiveness

Is it possible to learn forgiveness?

And, if so, will it improve your health?

These are the questions Dave Larson’s colleague Mike Cullough has been grappling with for years----and, ----his results are heartening.

When McCullough, now the research director at the National Institute for Healthcare Research, was a grad student at Virginia Commonwealth University, he set up an experiment to test whether college students----with grievances ranging from romantic betrayal to a roommate’s theft of cable equipment-----could be taught in one hour group sessions to forgive others.

To his surprise, he was successful with 40 percent of the students. Since then, he has conducted three studies on the physical and emotional consequence of forgiving

His conclusion? Those who forgave their transgressors (even six weeks after the experiment had ended) were less depressed and anxious, slept better, and were free from obsessive thoughts and revenge fantasies.

Of this last symptom, he says, “There’s an old Chinese proverb I like to quote:

‘The person who seeks revenge should dig two graves’”

A boyish-looking man of 27 with sandy hair slicked back from bright eyes, McCullough described himself as Robin to Larson’s Batman. “The old theory was that if you’re angry, you need to express it,” he says. “But expressions actually make it worse, and imagery is a major vehicle for increasing anger.”

Nurturing revenge fantasies, he adds, creates physiological arousal, increased heart rate and blood pressure—“all the risk factors for heart disease, essentially.” Indeed, a recent study by Ichiro Kawachi at Harvard School of Public Health shows that men who scored highest on a personality test anger scale were three times more likely to develop heart disease over the seven -year period than low scorers.

McCullough’s research, which he describes in his new book, To Forgive is Human (InterVarsity Press 1997).

Editor note: Please see “main menu”, Book Hall of Fame

Read “excerpt “ for more on this great book. Reveals that the key ingredient in learning forgiveness is empathy—what he calls “biological hardwiring that allows us to identify with others.”

In an experiment with people who tend to hold grudges, McCullough gave one group of subjects eight hours of relatively abstract lectures, discussions and writing on the benefits of forgiveness, and another group eight hours of empathy training. The members of the empathy group discussed their dilemmas and coping methods----from avoidance, revenge, slanders, drugs, denial, or finding a new relationship’s feet.

In encourage empathy, the subjects were then asked to tell stories about times they needed to be forgiven. (McCullough often set the stage with his Florida boyhood story about the time he stole one of the ropes holding up a neighbor’s palm tree.

His father hauled him, quaking, to the owner to apologize, When she just laughed, he felt “a great sense of unburdening.” He suddenly realized the value of absolution) In the end, 44 percent of the empathy group members were able to forgive their opponents, while only 4 percent of the other group were able to do so.

Many, many people have trouble empathizing, according to McCullough, because of what’s known as the fundamental attribution error: We tend to attribute others’ misbehavior to malice, While we see our own misdeeds as the result of passing circumstances.

To have empathy, he says,

“You have to have a sense of the ironic.
Everyone’s motives are mixed.”

These days, the question of forgiveness and its role in protecting relationships is of more than scientific interest to McCullough, who recently became engaged.

Naturally, he has a study to back up his point.

Not long ago, he surveyed people who had ben “tremendously hurt” by a friend, co-worker, or mate and discovered that forgiving the other person was a far more important factor than previous intimacy in determining whether the two people remained close. If you don’t forgive” concludes McCullough, “you can kiss closeness good-bye.”“

Source: UTNE READER, March - April ‘ 97, pg. 71

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