Forgive and Forget: Forgiving a Wrong Causes the Human Brain to More Easily Forget It

First Posted: May 13, 2014 01:24 PM EDT

The age-old saying, "forgive and forget," may have some scientific truth behind it. It turns out that if a person forgives someone, they're more easily able to forget the transgression.

"It is well established that learning to forgive others can have positive benefits for an individual's mental health," said Saima Noreen, one of the researchers, in a news release. "The ability to forget upsetting memories may provide an effective coping strategy that enables people to move on with their lives."

In order to further examine this particular phenomenon, the researchers had participants read 40 scenarios that contained hypothetical wrongdoings. These included infidelity, slander and theft. The volunteers then had to assess whether, as a victim, they would forgive the transgression.

About one to two weeks later, the volunteers read a subset of the scenarios again; this time, though, the situations were paired with a neutral cue word. The participants were asked to recall the related scenario when the cue word was green and to avoid thinking about it when it was red.

So what did the researchers find? For transgressions that the participants had forgiven in the first session, they forgot specific information details. In contrast, scenarios that were not forgiven were not forgotten so easily.

"This research is only coming into fruition, and it's likely that the relationship between forgiveness and forgetting is bi-direction and far more complex over longer periods of time," said Noreen in a news release. "We hope that, in time, new fields of enquiry may combine forgetting-and forgiveness-based interventions that might, in turn, give rise to powerful therapeutic tools that will enable people to 'forgive and forget' more effectively."

The findings are published in the journal Psychological Science.

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