Mental & Emotional Health

“Forgive and Forget” Really Works

If you’re still holding a grudge about a wrong someone did to you, you’d probably do well to follow the old adage that tells us to “forgive and forget”. That’s the advice of researchers at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, who showed that the details of an offense are more likely to be wiped from your memory when you’ve forgiven that transgression. You don’t even have to forgive the offender in person. You can simply resolve to pardon the person in your mind. The result will be that that you’ll be able to stop ruminating about the hurt and get past it. The findings were published in the May 2014 issue Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

A release from the association quotes lead author Saima Noreen as saying, “It is well established that learning to forgive others can have positive benefits for an individual’s physical and mental health. The ability to forget upsetting memories may provide an effective coping strategy that enables people to move on with their lives.”

From the perspective of cognitive science, overcoming strong negative emotions toward the person who did us wrong and quashing impulses for retribution or vengeance — processes that are critical to forgiveness — may be seen as a function of executive control.

Research also suggests that this executive control is involved in our ability to forget something when we’re motivated to forget it. Noreen decided to examine whether this same cognitive mechanism might form a link between forgiveness and forgetting.

The study, conducted with colleagues Malcolm MacLeod and Raynette Bierman, involved participants reading 40 scenarios that contained hypothetical wrongdoings, including infidelity, slander, and theft. The subjects were asked to evaluate the transgression and say whether, as the victim, they would forgive the misdeed.

About 1 to 2 weeks later, they read a subset of the scenarios again, but this time each scenario was paired with a neutral cue word. After learning the scenario-cue pairings, the participants were presented with some of the cue words, written in either red or green, and were instructed to recall the related scenario when the cue word was green, and to avoid thinking about the scenario when the cue word was red.

This procedure, often used in memory research, essentially trains people to forget specific information or details. The researchers wanted to see whether forgiveness might affect the forgetting process.

For transgressions they had forgiven in the first session, participants showed more forgetting when they had been instructed to forget the scenario in the second session, compared to when they had been given no specific instructions.

In contrast, participants showed no forgetting for scenarios they had not forgiven, even when they had been told to forget them.

Together, these findings suggest that forgiveness may facilitate intentional forgetting by helping individuals to suppress details about the transgressions perpetrated against them.

“This research is only coming into fruition, and it’s likely that the relationship between forgiveness and forgetting is bi-directional and far more complex over longer periods of time,” Noreen says. “We hope that, in time, new fields of enquiry may combine forgetting- and forgiveness-based interventions that might, in turn, give rise to powerful therapeutic tools that will enable people to “forgive and forget” more effectively.”

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