Research Examines Physical
Dimensions of Forgiveness
Posted June 24, 1998
HOLLAND -- It is better to forgive than to seethe.
So goes the conventional wisdom, according to Dr.
Charlotte vanOyen Witvliet of the Hope College psychology
faculty. Her latest research project, recently awarded an
external grant, just may prove it.
"Theorists, therapists and theologians alike have
advanced the thesis that granting forgiveness is beneficial,
and withholding forgiveness is detrimental for spiritual,
psychological and physical health," said Witvliet, an
assistant professor of psychology. "But there is little
Witvliet's two-year project is "Embodied
Forgiveness: Empirical Studies of Cognitive, Emotional and
Physical Dimensions of Forgiveness-Related Responses." She
has received the grant through an international research
opportunity program for Scientific Studies on the Subject of
Witvliet's research is one of 29 awards recently
announced by Dr. Everett Worthington, director of the
program. Funding priority involved considerations of
scientific merit along with pertinence to the criteria
described in the request for proposals, according to the
campaign's director, Dr. Everett Worthington.
Broad areas of research funded through the program
include projects on forgiveness and the Truth and
Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, healing and
reconciliation in Rwanda, marriage and family, end-of-life
issues, a twin-family study, primate cultures and new models
for measurement of forgiveness. The researchers are based
at 28 different institutions, ranging from the University of
Wales, Cardiff, to Stanford University, to the University of
Michigan, to Princeton University.
Witvliet will focus on four key responses to
interpersonal violations: remembering the hurt, holding a
grudge/plotting revenge against the perpetrator, developing
empathy for the perpetrator and granting forgiveness. She
expects each of the four to either erode or enhance
physical, spiritual and mental health.
She will study personal responses in a group of
volunteer test subjects. The volunteers will be connected
via electrodes to a computer that will monitor how they
react physically to their memories and personal imagery of
each forgiveness-related situation. She will compare facial
muscle tension, sweat, heart rate and blood pressure during
these conditions with other, more frequently studied
emotions--happiness and anger, for example. She will look
at what happens physically, on a second-by-second basis, as
people mentally react to interpersonal hurts that happened
to them in the past.
Witvliet will conduct the physiological study with
60 Hope students during the forthcoming 1998-99 school year.
During the second year, she'll work with 100 veterans
through a post-traumatic stress disorder clinic.
"The Hope study will inform us about the basic,
immediate psychophysiological impact of forgiveness-related
responses," she said. "The study of combat veterans will
highlight how forgiveness-related responses are related to
cognitive, emotional, spiritual and physical health."
"How we respond to interpersonal hurts likely
impacts health. If you're doing this month after month,
year after year, what would be some of the health
implications of that?," she said. For example, "If you're
constantly focusing on the hurt and plotting revenge,
cardiovascular problems, along with anger, anxiety and
depression, might result."