Effect of Forgiveness Training


Luskin, F. M., Ginzburg, K & Thoresen, C. E. (2005) The effect of forgiveness training on psychosocial factors in college age adults. Humboldt Journal of Social Relations. Special Issue: Altruism, intergroup apology and forgiveness: antidote for a divided world. 29(2) 163-184.

December, 1998

Fifty-five Stanford University students were recruited to participate in a study investigating a brief psychosocial treatment for engendering forgiveness as a response to an interpersonal hurt. The students had to have an unresolved interpersonal hurt with someone with whom they were in relationship. Excluded from the study were students whose hurt involved crimes of violence or physical or sexual abuse. In addition students had to answer in the affirmative to the question, “Can you at least imagine that you could learn to feel differently about the concern that you bring to the study?”

Once accepted into the study, participants were randomly selected to be either in the Control or one of two Treatment groups. The Treatment groups met weekly for six weeks and received a one-hour training session each week. There were between 10 and 15 participants in each of the Treatment groups. The Control group was a wait-listed control whose participants were invited to attend a four-hour workshop at the end at the completion of the study.

All participants were assessed three times. The Pre-test occurred prior to the beginning of training. Participants were notified to which group they belonged at the completion of the Pre-test. Six weeks later, at the end of treatment, all participants completed the Post-test. Ten weeks after this assessment all participants completed the Follow-up assessment. Of the 55 participants who began the experiment 46 (82%) completed the Post-test and 44 (80%) the Follow-up. Of the 55 participants 41 (75%) were women. Of the 44 participants who completed all assessments 34 (77%) were women.

The research goals of the training were that the Treatment group relative to the Control group would improve as a result of the training in five broad areas (Anger management, Degree of hurt, Forgiveness as a problem solving strategy, Forgiveness of interpersonal hurt and Psychosocial functioning).

The most important goal of training was to significantly reduce the level of anger Treatment group participants held as measured by the State-Trait Anger Inventory Trait Anger scale. The Angry Reaction sub-scale of this scale specifically addressed an important intervention-training goal of reducing angry reactivity to interpersonal provocation. Trait Anger measured the general tendency to anger while Angry Reaction measured the response of participants to specific interpersonal provocation. Reducing State Anger, or the measure of a person’s anger at the moment of assessment, was another goal of the training.

The second training goal was to help participants significantly reduce the level of hurt (Degree of Hurt Measure) they held regarding the specific situation that brought them into the study.

The third broad goal of the training was to help people learn to forgive as a general problem solving strategy. This goal was assessed by two distinct methods. First, hypothetical vignettes were administered (Willingness to Forgive Scale) and participants had to select two (both an actual - Ending Response, as well as a Preferred Response) responses from an array of choices. Only participant’s responses that indicated forgiveness were scored as fulfilling the goals of the training. The second part of this assessment domain was the creation of a generalization vignette that described a hurtful interpersonal situation. Study participants had to explicate their strategies for working through the emotional hurt and relationship difficulty generated by this hypothetical situation. In addition, two self-efficacy questions were administered to determine the degree of confidence respondents had about dealing with interpersonal hurt.

The fourth broad goal of training was to help participants forgive the person who hurt them. A scale that evaluated participant’s levels of Estrangement and Malice held towards the perpetrator of the interpersonal hurt measured this. This was in addition to an item added to the Willingness to Forgive Scale that asked participants to check off which strategy they would use to deal with the specific person who had hurt them. Again, only a response indicating forgiveness was scored as fulfilling the goals of the training.

The final broad goal of the training was to improve the psychological functioning of the Treatment group members. The goals were to improve levels of hopefulness, improve Self-efficacy towards interpersonal hurt and managing emotions and improve spiritual and quality of life indicators.

The Treatment group achieved a significant reduction in Trait Anger at Post-test and again at Follow-up compared to the change in the Control group. The Treatment group showed a significant decrease in Angry Reaction at Post-test and at Follow-up. The Treatment group achieved a 15% reduction in Angry Reaction from Pre-test to Post-test that remained stable at Follow-up.

Significant differences were found for State Anger, or short-term anger, between the two groups over all measurement periods and in follow-up evaluations at Post-test. The Treatment group showed a 20% reduction in State Anger from the Pre-test to both the Post-test and Follow-up.

At Follow-up the Treatment group showed, on the Degree of Hurt Measure, that they felt significantly less specific interpersonal hurt than did the Control group.

The Treatment group achieved a marginally significant (p < 0.06) change in their actual Willingness to Forgive at Post-test and a significant change at Follow-up. On the Preferred Response to the same items the Treatment group achieved significant improvement relative to the Control group at both Post-test and Follow-up. The Treatment group was also significantly more forgiving on the Total Response to the Interpersonal Hurt Vignette. This was in addition to significant differences between the groups on the Total Score of the Self-efficacy questions of the Interpersonal Hurt Vignette.

On the two scales of the Interpersonal Distance Scale no significant differences were found between the Treatment and the Control groups. For the women, who made up 75% of the study, at Post-test, the Treatment group showed significant improvement in Malice and Estrangement. Of note is the very low level of Malice all participants showed towards their offender (two full s.d. below the referent sample for the measure).

On the Willingness to Forgive item that asked participants to choose among responses to the particular person who brought participants into the study, the Ending Response was marginally (p < 0.06) significant at Post-test and significant at Follow-up. The Preferred Responses to the same item were significant at both Post-test and Follow-up.

The Treatment group achieved a significant increase in hopefulness at Post-test that was maintained at Follow-up. Similar significant increases were found at both Post-test and Follow-up in Self-efficacy towards managing emotion and interpersonal hurt. Measures looking at spiritual and quality of life issues were not given at Post-test, and significantly improved for the Treatment group relative to the Control group at Follow-up.