30 Years at the Forefront of Forgiveness Science: Dr. Robert Enright, “the Forgiveness Trailblazer”

Editor’s Note: Except for those literally living under a rock, few can deny that forgiveness has become not only an accepted but sought-after area of scientific psychological research during the past few decades. Forgiveness interventions have been tested, enhanced, and endorsed for both their psychological benefits as well as their physical health benefits. This year, in fact, marks a significant anniversary in what has become a remarkable evolution. Here are some of the significant dates in that chronology:

1989 – The first empirically-based published article in which there was an explicit focus on person-to-person forgiving appeared in the Journal of Adolescence. The article, “The Adolescent as Forgiver,” assessed two studies that focused on how children, adolescents, and young adults thought about forgiveness. The studies were conducted by Dr. Robert Enright, Dr. Radhi Al-Mabuk, and Dr. Maria Santos, MD.

“This year marks an important 30th anniversary of which the world is hardly aware and from which the world has greatly benefitted,” Dr. Enright, founder of the International Forgiveness Institute, wrote earlier this month in a Psychology Today blog article referring to those pioneering studies and the Journal of Adolescence article. “Prior to this study, there was research on apology, or people seeking forgiveness, but never with a deliberate focus on people forgiving one another.”

In the first 1989 study, 59 subjects in grades 4, 7, 10, college and in adulthood were interviewed and tested to assess their stages of forgiveness development. As predicted, the study provided strong evidence that people’s understanding of forgiveness develops with age. Study 2, with 60 subjects, replicated the findings of Study 1.

1993 – The next empirical study of forgiveness was published that introduced Dr. Enright’s Process Model of how people forgive. (Hebl & Enright, 1993). This study showed that as elderly females forgave family members for unjust treatment, then they (the forgivers themselves) became psychologically healthier. This was the first published intervention study and it showed a cause-and-effect relationship between learning to forgive and the subsequent positive changes in psychological health.

1995 – Other researchers began to publish the results of their studies as they, too, took up the empirical cause of forgiveness. Dr. Enright, on whom Time magazine bestowed the title “the forgiveness trailblazer,” shared the knowledge he gained from his groundbreaking forgiveness research with inquisitive researchers around the globe who significantly broadened the scope of forgiveness investigations.

2015 – The empirically-based treatment manual, Forgiveness Therapy, is published by the American Psychological Association. Its authors: Dr. Robert Enright and psychiatrist Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons. Its audience: thousands of mental health professions around the world who are helping to make forgiveness therapy a gold-standard therapeutic treatment like psychoanalysis and cognitive behavioral therapy.

Learn more about Dr. Enright’s pioneering role in forgiveness therapy by reading his complete April 16, 2019 Psychology Today blog article “Reflecting on 30 Years of Forgiveness Science.”

What Is the Difference: Our Forgiveness Proposals vs Social Justice Proposals for the Imprisoned?

Plato reminds us in The Republic that justice is giving people what is deserved.  This can include both rewards and punishments.  If Person A offers $100 to Person B for building a table, the receipt of the $100 by Person B upon the successful completion of the table is fair or just.  If Person C is guilty of a traffic violation and the rules of the city require any violator of this kind to be fined $100, then it is fair or just if Person C gives up $100.

Plato’s The Republic is a “Socratic dialogue” concerning justice, the just city-state, and the just man. Written in 380 BC, The Republic essentially consists of its main character—Socrates—discussing the meaning and nature of justice with his upper-class Athenian (Greek) friends. The central takeaway from The Republic, and the one that still resonates to this day, is that justice is desirable because of its consequences.
• Click the illustration to read The Republic.

Social justice, while not always defined in the same way by all advocates of this approach, basically centers on equality of outcome.  For example, suppose a pizza establishment will not deliver in a neighborhood in which there is high crime and two of their delivery people were killed trying to make deliveries there in the past year.

Because innocent people in that neighborhood are not treated the same as people in safer neighborhoods, this may be considered unjust by social justice standards.  Why?  It is because the innocent need an equal outcome, successful delivery of pizzas, compared to those in safer neighborhoods.  That the risk for the deliverers is not deserved is not an issue here.  For the classical sense of justice, what do the deliverers deserve?  They deserve to be safe in terms of laws of probability for being safe.  For the new social sense of justice, what do the deliverers deserve?  Actually, the deliverers are not the focus now.  The focus is on those who have no equality of ordering pizzas.  There is a decided shift to one particular group and the emphasis on equality of outcome for them.

Now we are ready to show the difference between social justice for the imprisoned and forgiveness interventions for them.  In social justice and in forgiveness, we both might focus, for example, on the childhood of Person D, who was abused by his father and now Person D has abused three children, for which he is arrested.  Social justice, in focusing on his childhood, might have people see that Person D is not fully to blame for his actions, but instead his unfortunate background must mitigate the length of his sentence so that he is not unequally behind bars compared to others who were not abused and are not behind bars.  The quest in this particular case is to alter the sentence and thus the time served.

For our forgiveness program, as we, too, focus on Person D’s horrendously unjust childhood, we try to help Person D, if he chooses, to forgive his father for his deep injustices.  This process of forgiveness might reduce Person D’s rage and thus reduce his motivation to hurt others in the future.  We do not suggest that justice now be altered.  We focus on inner healing and not on altering the time he is to serve in prison.  Justice in its classical sense is served in the forgiveness programs, while that classical sense of justice is not served when social justice is considered, at least in the example given here.

There is a substantial difference between forgiveness as a rehabilitation strategy for those in prison and the call to alter the sentence in social justice.  If there is a call to reduce sentences without the concomitant attempt to eliminate rage, one has to wonder how just this solution is.  Perhaps it is time to fold forgiveness interventions into the quest for social justice so that these work together.  When a reduced sentence is going to occur, then it seems wise that the rage within first is reduced.

Robert

Forgiveness, like Dr. Enright’s Model, should be Cultivated on National and International Scales

According to an editorial in the February issue of an international humanities journal, forgiveness interventions like Dr. Robert Enright’s 20 Step Process Model,  should be employed on a much broader basis and, in fact, national leaders should be assessing “when or how it might be appropriate to cultivate forgiveness on national and international scales.”

The influential American Journal of Public Health, continuously published for more than 100 years, further editorialized that:

“If forgiveness is strongly related to health, and being wronged is a common experience, and interventions. . . are available and effective, then one might make the case that forgiveness is a public health issue. . .

“Because being wronged is common, and because the effects of forgiveness on health are substantial, forgiveness should perhaps be viewed as a phenomenon that is not only of moral,  theological, and relational significance, but of public health importance as well.”


“Forgiveness promotes health and wholeness; it is important to public health.”      AJPH


The editorial cites Dr. Enright’s Process Model (also called his Four Phases of Forgiveness) as one of only two “prominent intervention classes” now available. “Interventions using this model have been shown to be effective with groups as diverse as adult incest survivors, parents who have adopted special needs children, and inpatients struggling with alcohol and drug addiction.

“Forgiveness is associated with lower levels of depression, anxiety, and hostility; reduced nicotine dependence and substance abuse; higher positive emotion; higher satisfaction with life; higher social support; and fewer self-reported health symptoms. The beneficial emotional regulation (results in) forgiveness being an alternative to maladaptive  psychological responses like rumination and suppression.”

Read the rest of this compelling editorial: Is Forgiveness a Public Health Issue?

Learn more about Dr. Enright’s Four Phases of Forgiveness