Research That Matters (January 17 - 20, 2008)

Directors Room (Omni Shoreham)

Forgiveness Interventions: a Meta-Analytic Review

Brad Lundahl, PhD, University of Utah, MaryJane Taylor, PhD, University of Utah, Ryan Stevenson, MSW, University of Utah, and Dan Roberts, MSW, University of Utah.

BACKGROUND Few individuals escape some form of unjust or unfair treatment as they progress through life. Abuse, murder, incest, and unfaithful behavior are but a few injustices that can have a long-lasting and negative impact. Victims of injustices often suffer from heightened levels of negative affect, such as anger, anxiety, and depression. They also may struggle from low self-esteem and may have difficulty enjoying life. Forgiveness has been proposed as a method that may help the victims live fuller, healthier lives (Enright, 2001).

We conducted a meta-analysis to investigate the effectiveness of forgiveness interventions. The focus of forgiveness interventions is on helping the victim of an unjust act, not the perpetrator. The hope of forgiveness intervention programs is that the victims do not have to suffer two insults: the original offense and the resulting sequeala.

METHOD Using traditional meta-analytic procedures, we identified studies that tested the effectiveness of forgiveness interventions. Of the 106 studies that were identified, 17 met our inclusion criteria. All studies compared a treatment group to either a control or alternative treatment group. Dependent variables of interest included forgiveness, negative affect, positive affect, self-esteem, and interpersonal relations. Forgiveness was often measured as an individual's ability to let go of negative feelings and behaviors toward the perpetrator. Indicators of negative affect included measures of depression, anxiety, stress, and anger. Indicators of positive affect included measures of hope, contentment, and joy. Indicators of self-esteem included measures of feelings of self-worth and self-acceptance. Indicators of interpersonal relations included measurement of victims' perceptions of relations with the perpetrator(s).

All studies were double coded by a combination of research assistants and the first two authors. Inter-rater reliability was high. Effect sizes (Hedge's g) were calculated using the Comprehensive Meta-Analysis software. A random effects model was used.

RESULTS Overall, forgiveness programs were effective. Of the 17 studies that measured forgiveness, the overall ES = 0.89. Sixteen studies examined decreases in negative affect, with an average ES = 0.58. Nine studies examined positive affect, ES = 0.81, and self-esteem, ES = 0.60. Forgiveness intervention programs were least effective in improving interpersonal relationships, ES = 0.29. The z-value for each outcome was significant, suggesting that the effect sizes were statistically significant. However, heterogeneity was also found within each dependent variable suggesting the presence of moderators (which will be detailed in the presentation, if accepted).

CONCLUSIONS Forgiveness programs appear to be effective in reducing the unwanted sequeala from unfair or unjust acts. Not only did forgiveness programs increase participants' ability to forgive, they promoted increases in positive affect and self-esteem while diminishing levels of negative affect. Such programs were somewhat less effective in promoting positive interpersonal relationships with perpetrators though this outcome may not be desirable in many cases. Our results suggest forgiveness programs should be considered as one means to empower individuals seen by social workers.

Enright, R. D. (2001). Forgiveness is a choice. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.