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Feature

Ling Hsuan Tung

Graduate student Ling-Hsuan Tung is studying the healing impact of forgiveness.

To forgive or not to forgive

By J. Trout Lowen

From eNews, December 20, 2007

At some point in our lives, each of us has been hurt by another, be it betrayal by a friend, rejection by a partner, or victimization by a criminal. And at some point, we have had to decide whether to carry that hurt indefinitely or to forgive.

Ling-Hsuan Tung, a doctoral candidate in counseling psychology, has watched many clients struggle with that decision, and she's seen the healing impact that deciding to forgive can have. "When clients tell me they finally, truly forgive the person, they mention feeling free," Tung says. "What happened still matters, but it helps them to free themselves from being hurt."

Through her work as an intern counselor at Bethel University's Counseling Services and at the Walk-In Counseling Center in Minneapolis, among other places, Tung has discovered that it's important not to push clients to forgive, however. "If it's a very serious offense, then it's really hard. You cannot push yourself to forgive right away." That's particularly true, she says, for some of her clients who have a strong faith that encourages forgiveness.

But what makes a person decide to forgive? That's the question Tung's dissertation research seeks to answer. "My hope is to learn more about the factors that affect people's choice to forgive and reconcile, and by knowing those things, to help us develop better skills to help clients to be able to forgive," Tung says.

A native of Taiwan, Tung began researching forgiveness as a master's student at the University of Minnesota; she designed a study to determine how likely someone is to forgive using eight short scenarios that ranged from intimate offenses, such as adultery and incest, to more distant events including plagiarism and a car accident. She asked subjects to read the scenarios and respond as the victim to three questions: Would they forgive the offender? Would they tell the offender they had forgiven them? And would they reconcile with the offender?

Tung also examined the effect of four variables on that decision: the scenario itself, whether there was an apology, the closeness of the relationship prior to the offense, and the time elapsed since the offense. Among the most significant factors that influence the decision to forgive, Tung says, are the severity of the offense and whether the offender has apologized.

While it might seem like common sense that someone is more likely to forgive after an apology, Tung's adviser, educational psychology professor Tom Hummel, says Tung's research is unique in that it seeks to actually quantify how much more likely someone is to forgive by using techniques more common in economic and marketing research. Having the more precise results could help clinicians treating both victims and offenders, he says.

Now Tung is broadening her research. She recently completed interviews with 128 graduate and undergraduate students using scenarios similar to the first study, but expanding the variables to include options such as the offender's intent and whether the victim is religious.

She is also probing more deeply into the question of reconciliation. Forgiveness doesn't always include reconciliation, Tung notes. In some cases, such as sexual assault, the victim may want nothing to do with the offender, but forgiveness is still possible, even if the offender never knows of the decision, Tung says.

Deciding to forgive, she explains, can give patients a sense of power and control. "It's important to empower clients, to say you have the control, you have the power to say you're going to forgive the person."