Thursday, October 22, 2020

Forgiveness: Psychological Theory, Research, and Practice



Psychological Theory,

Research, and Practice

By Everett L. Worthington Jr.   

Reviewed by

  Geoffrey W. Sutton


Worthington grabs our attention in the preface: “on January 2, 1996 . . . I encountered the most difficult transgression I ever had to wrestle with (x).” His account of a horrendous personal tragedy, the murder of his mother, adds an important dimension of depth to this scholarly treatise.

Worthington states his purpose as describing a theory of forgiveness. Initially, he suggests a metatheory that will incorporate research from biological, psychological, and other perspectives. He narrows the scope of his enterprise to a forgiveness model based on Richard Lazarus’ stress-and-coping theory. I observed that he did not use the word reconciliation in the overview. Although, Worthington does address reconciliation, the primary purpose is the development of a psychological theory of forgiveness.

Worthington divides this project into three parts. In the first part, he lays a foundation for the biological, psychological, and sociological bases for stress and coping in five chapters. Part two consists of three chapters that describe personality traits of forgivers and nonforgivers. The third part includes six chapters devoted to applications. Two of the application chapters focus on reconciliation. The final sections of the book include a conclusion, an appendix containing comments on eight cases presented earlier in the text, and a detailed reference list spanning pages 277— 294.

Before presenting his stress-and-coping model in the first chapter, Worthington provides two contextual elements. First, he hints at a diversity of dimensions of the concept of forgiveness including his focus on the emotional aspect as different from the decisional component of forgiveness. Note that the focus is on interpersonal offenses and the intrapersonal process of forgiving an offender. Second, he provides balanced descriptions of the key concepts in several models of forgiveness that will be of great benefit to readers who are new to this area of research. Readers will find a useful chart on page 30 that provides an overview of various components of a forgiveness model. The chart illustrates the possibilities of more than one pathway from an initial offense to coping with the offense, which includes forgiveness as one way to deal with interpersonal offenses. Finally, there is a useful table on page 59 that delineates the criteria for decisional versus emotional forgiveness. Although not noted in the text, an article likely

written about the same time as a part of this book, referred to the transgression-unforgiveness concepts in terms of a stress paradigm (Sutton & Thomas, 2005). The 2005 article suggested that unforgiveness might be considered a Transgression Response Stress Syndrome. Thus, Worthington’s notion of a stress paradigm is consistent with other literature and may call into question his use of the term unforgiveness, because his theory posits ways other than forgiveness to reduce the complex of negative emotions.

In the balance of part one, Worthington reviews the empirical evidence supporting a significant role for emotion in understanding unforgiveness and forgiveness. A focus is on the emotional replacement hypothesis, the concept that the negative emotions associated with the state of unforgiveness can be replaced by positive emotions associated with forgiveness. The chapters include summaries of general research on stress and emotions as well as studies specifically focused on forgiveness. Although Worthington reviews some biological studies, I think LeDoux’s (e.g., 2002) research and theorizing about the brain’s emotional processing might be worth considering because of the relevance to understanding the emotional dimension of unforgiveness and forgiveness.


In part two, Worthington’s review of the research on personality and forgiveness opens with findings from studies of the Big Five Personality Theory and includes findings related to various traits (e.g., forgiveness of others is significantly associated with agreeableness) as well as the role of personality disorders (e.g., narcissism and grudge-holding). The third chapter of the section, Personality Can Be Changed, provides some useful information but may be better placed with part three, where the author discusses psychotherapy along with other applications. The section certainly provides an important overview of the role of personality variables in understanding forgiveness but it is not clearly tied to the proposed stress-and-coping metatheory.

 Part three offers information related to psychotherapy. Here Worthington reviews the components of various models of forgiveness interventions along with empirical evidence for key components such as the assessment of harm and empathy. He includes the findings of other well-known leaders such as Enright and Luskin along with an extensive look at his own REACH model. Two chapters include interventions related to reconciliation in interpersonal relationships as well as in a community setting. The in-depth discussion of the steps involved in these models along with practical exercises and therapy scripts afford the clinician an opportunity to put research into practice at the next opportunity.


Find Forgiveness: Psychological Theory, Research, and Practice online.


LeDoux, J. (2002). Synaptic self: How our brains become who we are. NY: Viking.

Sutton, G. W., & Thomas, E. K. (2005). Restoring Christian leaders: How conceptualizations of forgiveness and restoration can influence practice and research. American Journal of Pastoral Counseling, 8, 29-44.

Worthington, E.L. Jr. (2006). Forgiveness: Psychological Theory, Research, and Practice. New York: Routledge.


For reviews of other books on forgiveness, click here.

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