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02 August 2012
From religion to everyday life forgiveness is a much discussed quality. On the prosaic level Osacr Wilde put it nicely when he said, “Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys so much.” Admittedly, you have to wonder whether Oscar was really entering into the forgiving spirit with such sentiment. Perhaps forgiveness is more truly captured by Mark Twain who said, “Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.” There are so many levels to that observation that you could muse on it for hours and still not have touched all the sides of it. If we could merge the qualities of mercy and forgiveness then we could turn to Shakespeare who said of the former that it is “twice blessed; it blesses him that gives and him that takes”. However you slice it, forgiveness has power and relevance and according to a new study if you want forgiveness, genuine forgiveness, then you need to give an apology.
To establish this researchers had experimental subjects sit in individual cubicles. They were told that raffle tickets would be given out in three rounds. The prize for the raffle was a $50 gift card. Each subject was told that they had been paired with an unknown partner. The subject and the partner would split ten raffle tickets between them per round. Sometimes the subjects were told that their partner (who was the experimenters) made the ticket distributions, while on other occasions they were told it was done by chance.
In the first round the subjects only received two tickets so it appeared that the “partner” had kept most tickets for themselves.
In the second round the subjects were given nine tickets and half of the subjects also received a note saying, “Sorry about that first round. I got carried away. I feel really bad that I did that.” Then in the last round the subjects were given the chance to be in charge of the distribution of tickets themselves. The subjects also filled out a survey designed to measure how motivated they were to forgive.
The results showed that when there was no apology but an apparent restitution by the partner (in the form of more tickets given), the subjects shared the tickets more generously but they did not feel true forgiveness. However, when there was an apology not only did the subjects share generously they also scored high on forgiveness.
So while acts of restitution generate corresponding behaviour, for forgiveness to occur there really needs to be an acknowledgement of what has happened and an apology for it. “Sorry” might be the hardest word, but it is also a pretty powerful one.