The unburdening lightness of forgiving

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Ryan Fehr

We often think of forgiveness as a metaphorical unburdening, a “weight being lifted from our shoulders.”

But forgiving also results in a literal unburdening, according to new research by Ryan Fehr, an assistant professor of management at the University of Washington Foster School of Business.

Fehr’s study indicates that the sense of lightness achieved by absolving someone who has wronged us in some way makes us perceive hills as less steep and even jump higher.

“Previous studies have shown that forgiveness has positive effects on a victim’s psychological well-being and repairs relationships,” he says. “But we demonstrate that forgiveness has farther-reaching implications for how victims perceive and interact with their physical surroundings.”

Upside of absolution

To explore the way that forgiveness might affect a person’s perceptions and actions beyond the conflict itself, Fehr designed a pair of studies in collaboration with co-authors Xue Zheng of Erasmus University, Kenneth Tai of Singapore Management University, Jayanth Narayanan of the National University of Singapore, and Michele Gelfand of the University of Maryland.

Both studies began by asking some participants to recount an incident in which they forgave someone and others to recount an incident in which they were unable to forgive.

In the first study, participants were then asked to estimate the slope of a nearby hill. The group induced to feel forgiveness perceived the hill as less steep, on average, than the group induced to feel unforgiveness.

“This follows a large body of research demonstrating that how we perceive the world around us isn’t just about the object we’re looking at, but also our mental and physical states,” Fehr explains. “So, for instance, if you are tired or carrying a heavy backpack, you will perceive a hill as steeper than it is. Your estimation of steepness is essentially about estimating how difficult it would be to climb.”

If the first study was about perception, the second was about action. When tested on their vertical leap, the participants who forgave were able to jump higher, on average, than the participants who did not forgive.

Embodied metaphors

Fehr explains that the metaphors we create to explain feelings can become very real. For example, research shows that the abstract concept of anger makes you actually feel the sensation of heat. Isolation, on the other hand, makes you feel cold. And, as a recent study by Foster marketing professor Ann Schlosser demonstrates, feelings of gratitude toward the kind—or metaphorically “sweet”—actions of another increase one’s taste for sugary treats.

“These metaphors activate the concept in your mind,” Fehr says. “And that, in turn, influences how you actually perceive and act in the world.”

In the case of a grudge created by an interpersonal transgression, the literal concept that’s activated is of a “weight” or “burden.” Likewise, the act of forgiving evokes a sense of “unburdening” or “lightening” of these metaphorical loads.

“When people forgive someone, the ‘weight being lifted off their shoulders’ is a metaphor that can activate a real concept of lightness,” Fehr says. “As we’ve found, this can influence how you perceive and move about the world around you.”

Feel lighter. Jump higher. View challenges more optimistically.

Organizational forgiveness

Conflict is an inevitable—and some would say necessary—part of everyday life in organizations.

But the attending curative concept of forgiveness is rarely addressed in a systematic way by organizations. Why? Fehr says that forgiveness is sometimes perceived as an abstract religious or philosophical idea that is an inappropriate topic for workplace policy. Others consider it a “touchy-feely” concept that will lead to a permissive environment, a disruption of the balance of power, and a softening of an organization’s competitive chops.

Fehr believes this study and others on forgiveness suggest that better managing interpersonal conflict is ultimately good for business.

“A workplace that encourages forgiveness and constructive conflict management is going to be more successful than an organization that views forgiveness as weak,” he says.

Fehr advises that organizations institute a climate of forgiveness. This, he says, can provide a strategic advantage in the form of increased energy, creativity and productivity among employees who are unburdened by the weight of unresolved interpersonal conflict.

“We’re finding that forgiveness does help lift these burdens, which implies that forgiveness might help people retain more energy, carry less stress and even perform better at work,” he adds. “Anything an organization can do to encourage constructive conflict management and resolution between co-workers and between leaders and employees is going to produce a more effective workplace.”

The Unburdening Effects of Forgiveness: Effects on Slant Perception and Jumping Height” was published in the May 2015 issue of the journal Social Psychology and Personality Science.