Las Vegas, N.M. — New Mexico Highlands University psychology professor Ian Williamson published a study that sheds new light on barriers to forgiveness.
Williamson was the lead author of the scholarly article, “Forgiveness Aversion: Developing a Motivational State Measure of Perceived Forgiveness Risks,” published in the journal Motivation and Emotion.
“Forgiveness is a precious commodity because it challenges us so deeply,” Williamson said. “People generally want to forgive but have a hard time doing this, and there are so many dynamics — and barriers — involved in authentic forgiveness.”
Previous forgiveness research has focused primarily on promoting forgiveness, and its psychological benefits. Williamson’s four-part study is the first to develop a multidimensional motivational model for examining why victims hesitate to forgive — and the perceived risks involved.
Williamson’s nine-item Forgiveness Aversion Scale is composed of three related dimensions.
The first dimension, unreadiness, refers to ongoing emotional turmoil that keeps victims from sincerely forgiving. The second, self-protection, refers to concerns about how offenders will interpret forgiveness. The third, “face” concerns, refers to victims’ apprehension about forgiveness affecting their social reputation.
“Forgiveness takes time. With unreadiness, the victim is still ruminating and thinking uncontrollably about the offense. With self-protection, the victim is hesitant and ambivalent about forgiving, especially if it involves a repeat offender. With saving face concerns, a victim might not want to appear weak.”
Williamson said that while most forgiveness happens within the context of relationships, the nine-item scale also measures forgiving strangers. The context for forgiveness varies a great deal — ranging from forgiving a coworker for lying to forgiving a partner for infidelity to forgiving a stranger for a sexual assault.
“Sometimes for forgiveness to be safe — such as cases of ongoing physical abuse — it involves cutting off the relationship. This is forgiveness without reconciliation, where the victim wishes the offender well and moves on.
“At the end of the day, I think forgiveness is a positive process. The more we understand the process, the better,” Williamson said.
Williamson describes true forgiveness as when the victim releases revenge motivations, no longer feels the need to avoid the offender, and has goodwill for the offender.
“The cultural context of forgiveness is important to consider because some cultures value forgiveness, while others place less value and honor upon forgiveness,” Williamson said.
Williamson collaborated with psychology colleagues at the University of Minnesota on the research paper, as well as Highlands University clinical psychology graduate student Sierra Ferní¡ndez.
To help develop and validate the Forgiveness Aversion Scale, various questionnaires were administered to students from the University of Minnesota and Highlands University. In addition, participants included a more heterogeneous and generalized sample of the United States population generated by a website used for social science studies.
Williamson’s research incorporated methods such as longitudinal analysis, correlation analysis — like the relationship between apologies and offense severity — a hypothetical scenario experiment, and more.
Williamson joined the Highlands faculty in 2004 and coordinates the Psychology Program. He is past chair of the Social and Behavioral Sciences Department and is the Faculty Association president.
He earned his doctorate in social psychology from the University of Minnesota with an additional specialty in political psychology.
At Highlands, Williamson teaches both undergraduate and graduate courses in social psychology, positive psychology, statistics and research methods, psychology and Chinese medicine, and more.
He has published his research in numerous scholarly publications such as the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, and Journal of Psychology and Theory.