Punishment and forgiveness

punish forgive arrows

It’s easier for people to forgive someone for doing wrong against them if some form of punishment is involved, according to psychology researchers at the University of Adelaide.

Dr Peter Strelan, at the university’s School of Psychology, has been studying forgiveness in a bid to better understand how people can resolve personal conflict. As well as providing a better understanding of human behaviour and emotions, his research could help to inform clinical psychologists and relationship counsellors.

In a range of different scenarios involving someone who has done wrong: a negligent friend; a criminal offender; and a troubled personal relationship, Dr Strelan and colleagues found that people were more willing to forgive if those who had offended against them had been punished in some way.

Punishment plays important role in forgiveness

He said, “Justice and forgiveness are often considered to be opposites, but we’ve found that victims who punish their offender are more able to forgive and move on.

“Punishment could take many different forms. It could be giving someone the silent treatment, which in itself is a very powerful psychological punishment. Or in the case of a criminal offender, knowing that a court of law has imposed a reasonable sentence and that justice is being done – that may be enough for some people to forgive.

“That sense of justice, or getting ‘just deserts’, is important. However, in interpersonal relationships punishment should not be extreme or vengeful,  if it were, this would not help to repair the damage in the relationship and is likely to make things worse.

“For forgiveness to really work, there must be a sense that negative responses towards a transgressor are being replaced with positive ones. It’s not about retaliation, it’s about responding constructively and doing something about people’s poor behaviour towards you, in a way that works for both parties involved in the conflict.”

Dr Strelan said many people have a difficult time forgiving those who have done them wrong.

He said, “When you get hurt by someone you naturally feel vulnerable, and the very idea of forgiving someone also makes a victim feel vulnerable. When some form of punishment is involved, the victim feels more empowered by that and is more able to forgive.”


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3 Responses to Punishment and forgiveness

  1. I am fascinated by the concept that the act of forgiving makes the victim feel vulnerable. I suppose that is true because for one thing, the person who is forgiven can hurt the victim again. Thus the risk is twofold: (a) getting hurt again and (b) anger and humiliation at being a “sucker” for having forgiven the first time. Thus, even with punishment meted out, it takes courage to take the risk of forgiving….good to ponder with Yom Kippur on the horizon -Karen, of offbeatcompassion.com


    • Hi Karen, Yes, I agree with you. I think sometimes forgiveness is equated with the notion that the person who has done wrong, gets away ‘free’ with whatever they have done, without paying a price for their actions, and this is where ‘punishment’ may come into the equation. While I do not advocate punishment, I believe that there must be attempts at ‘restitution’ – the act of making good, as best one can, for any damage done, so that forgiveness can be given with less feelings of vulnerability.

      Also there seems to be a prevailing view these days that we are duty bound to forgive, for “our own good” and “peace of mind” even when a person has not asked for forgiveness for their actions, shown any remorse, or changed their behavior in any way. When I read many current articles, I see a view where forgiveness is bandied about as the panacea for all ills, one wave of the magic ‘forgiveness wand’ and everything will go back to the way it was. The concept of an easy ‘cure all’ forgiveness does not sit well with me. I think there are degrees of forgiveness and we have to work out which ones/s we can live with. Sometimes people can’t take the risk to forgive when they have experienced complex hurtful situations and the best they can manage is ‘acceptance’.

      The most basic kind of forgiveness is “forgoing the other’s indebtedness” (mechila). This is not a reconciliation of heart or an embracing of the offender; it is simply reaching the conclusion that the offender no longer owes me anything for whatever it was that he or she did. But I am not obliged to offer mechila if the offender is not sincere in his or her repentance and has not taken concrete steps to correct the wrong done.

      Reconciliation (the whole-hearted yielding of all inner negative feeling) is not a necessary part of the process of forgiveness. Although reconciliation is known and even desirable, I am comforted by the fact that rabbinic Judaism realizes that there are other modes of rapprochement that are fully adequate and, perhaps, more realistic.

      And you are so right that with Yom Kippur on the horizon, this is a perfect time to consider this in much more depth.

      Thanks so much for commenting, it is a pleasure to talk with you on a subject that I suspect is something that often would come up in your work.

      Liked by 1 person

      • You make the very important point that there are many shades of forgiveness. Our being aware of these nuances can make us more comfortable with offering at least the psychologically less risky and less draining kinds of forgiveness, thereby providing some closure for both parties. Then as trust builds, we can go for the more generous kinds of forgiveness. May you be inscribed for a sweet year.


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