British Journal of Social Psychology (2015)
©2015 The British Psychological Society
How forgiveness promotes offender pro-relational
intentions: The mediating role of offender
Louise Mooney, Peter Strelan* and Ian McKee
University of Adelaide, Australia
Although relationship restoration is an important outcome of forgiveness, little is known
about how forgiveness facilitates such an outcome. In addition, in forgiveness research,
little attention is paid to the perspective of the offender. We address these two
shortcomings simultaneously, testing the idea that forgiveness promotes offender
gratitude, which in turn encourages offender pro-relational intentions. Across three
experimental studies, participants were induced to believe they had transgressed;
recalled a time when they had transgressed; and imagined transgressing. In studies 1 and 2,
forgiveness was manipulated; in Study 3, victim motivation for forgiving was manipulated.
State gratitude –in comparison with guilt, indebtedness, and positive affect –was
consistently found to play the primary mediating role between forgiveness and pro-
An effective means by which to restore social harmony following conﬂict is through
forgiveness. Although forgiveness often takes time (McCullough, Fincham, & Tsang,
2003) and can be costly (McNulty, 2011), it also salvages relationships across a range of
contexts. Indeed, studies based on evolutionary (McCullough, 2008), functional (Strelan,
McKee, Calic, Cook, & Shaw, 2013), and interdependence (Finkel, Rusbult, Kumashiro, &
Hannon, 2002) theories suggest that victims’ primary motivation when forgiving is to
restore valued relationships.
How does forgiveness restore relationships damaged by partner wrongdoing? The
aforementioned theoretical approaches suggest that victims in valued relationships are
motivated to maintain such relationships, and forgiveness is a tool by which to achieve this
end. However, outside of a motivational framework, little else is known about the process
by which forgiveness enables relationship restoration.
Given relationship restoration is
such a salient outcome of forgiveness, such a shortcoming is notable. Moreover –and this
is a discrepancy of forgiveness research in general –focusing on the motivations of victims
ignores the part played by the other person involved in a transgression: The offender. In
this article, we therefore make a new and novel contribution. We examine the next step in
*Correspondence should be addressed to Peter Strelan, School of Psychology, University of Adelaide, North Terrace, Adelaide, SA
5005, Australia (email: email@example.com).
Much is known about the predictors of forgiveness (for a meta-analysis, see Fehr, Gelfand, & Nag, 2010). Itis possible that such
variables could also have indirect effects on relationship restoration. For example, apology may encourage forgiveness, but also
lead the victim to attribute more positive qualities to the offender, thereby encouraging relationship restoration. However, here we
focus explicitly on post-forgiveness effects.
the process by which forgiveness restores relationships, and we do so by taking the
offender’s perspective. Speciﬁcally, we ask, ‘What does forgiveness communicate to
offenders so that offenders are encouraged to want to restore the relationships that they,
by their actions, have threatened?’
Forgiveness may be conceptualized on the basis of two (often inter-related) processes.
One is intrapersonal, in which victims’ cognitions and feelings about a transgressor
transition from negative to positive (Worthington, 2001). The other is interpersonal
(Finkel et al., 2002; McCullough, 2008), such that the internal prosocial motivational
change experienced by victims is manifested behaviourally, often implied through
relationship-speciﬁc cues (Finkel et al., 2002) and conciliatory and inclusive gestures and
words (McCullough, 2008).
In this article, we focus on the interpersonal qualities of forgiveness. In those situations
where forgiveness is communicated, a feature of the interpersonal aspect of forgiveness is
that it involves positive responses to transgressors, variously conceptualized as
benevolent (McCullough et al., 1998), altruistic (Enright, Freedman, & Rique, 1998),
compassionate, and loving (Worthington, 2001). Regardless of the nomenclature, implicit
in a forgiving response at the interpersonal level is other-focused concern. Indeed,
forgiveness has been described as a ‘gift’ to an offender (Enright et al., 1998). As such,
forgiveness as an interpersonal process is inclusive, communicating (even if only
implicitly) several important psychological messages to transgressors: That the slate has
been wiped clean, allowing offenders to move on (Enright, 1996); that, despite their
actions, offenders are valued; and that, rather than being alienated, they are restored to the
victim’s moral circle (Wenzel, Okimoto, Feather, & Platow, 2008). All things being equal,
forgiveness should therefore be perceived as, and accepted for, its prosocial intent.
Therefore, forgiveness should encourage in offenders a state of gratitude. The experience
of gratitude should, in turn, encourage transgressors to respond positively to being
State gratitude refers to the positive emotion resulting from the recognition that one has
gained from the ‘costly, intentional, voluntary action’ of a benefactor (McCullough,
Kimeldorf, & Cohen, 2008, p. 281). Gratitude has effects independent of those resulting
from positive mood (Tsang, 2006b) or awareness of prosocial norms (Bartlett & DeSteno,
2006). It is distinct from indebtedness (Greenberg & Shapiro, 1971) and the norm of
reciprocity (Gouldner, 1960), insofar as it goes beyond a tit-for-tat repayment of a speciﬁc
beneﬁt (Watkins, Scheer, Ovnicek, & Kolts, 2006). Rather, gratitude is like a relational
radar, alerting recipients to the benevolence of others, thereby focusing attention on
benefactors and their moral behaviour (McCullough, Kilpatrick, Emmons, & Larson,
Gratitude serves three moral functions: It is a psychological barometer for detecting
beneﬁt-giving; it motivates subsequent recipient prosocial responding; and it reinforces
the benefactor (McCullough et al., 2001). Each of these functions has relevance for the
First, forgiveness possesses the psychological features that should induce gratitude.
Rather than acting vengefully or holding a grudge, forgiving victims responds
2Louise Mooney et al.
benevolently –Even though offenders have no moral right to such a response (Enright
et al., 1998). Moreover, forgiveness may occur even when victims still experience hurt
(McCullough et al., 2003). And, forgiving is a risk, insofar as it makes victims vulnerable to
being hurt again (McNulty, 2011). As such, forgiveness may be interpreted by offenders
not only as a ‘gift’, but also as a sacriﬁcial response by victims (Enright et al., 1998). All
things being equal, offenders are likely to experience gratitude when receiving
Second, beneﬁciaries desire to express their gratitude. For example, individuals
induced to feel grateful are more motivated to acknowledge and emulate benefactor
actions, repay the benefactor’s kindness in words, actions , or material goods, and enhance
the reputation of the benefactor (for a brief review, see Algoe, 2012). There is also a
relational basis to expressing gratitude. Receiving forgiveness (rather than revenge, for
example) encourages reciprocal pro-relational responding because it alerts offenders to
the desirable qualities of a forgiver and therefore to the positive implications of restoring a
relationship with that person (Algoe, 2012).
Third, gratitude further nurtures relationships because of what it communicates, in
turn, to forgivers. Gratitude encourages victims that forgiving offenders was worthwhile
and apparently devoid of risk (McCullough et al., 2001, 2008). And, it reconﬁrms to a
forgiving victim that the offender possesses the sort of desirable personal qualities that
makes a relationship with them worth persevering with (Tabak, McCullough, Luna, Bono,
& Berry, 2012).
Gratitude mediates between forgiveness and offender pro-relational responding
Only one previous study has tested (and found support) for the positive effect of
forgiveness on state gratitude (Witvliet, Ludwig, & Bauer, 2002). Elsewhere, a mere
handful of studies have examined the relation between forgiveness and offender pro-
relational responding. Each reports that the receipt of forgiveness encourages offenders to
respond pro-relationally (Kelln & Ellard, 1999; Struthers, Eaton, Shirvani, Georghiou, &
Edell, 2008). The primary aim of the present research is to understand the process by
which forgiveness enables offenders to respond pro-relationally –An endeavour upon
which previous studies have not embarked. The one exception is the work by Struthers
et al. (2008), who examined how individuals react to being forgiven when they did not
believe they had done anything wrong such as to make forgiveness relevant. The focus in
these studies was on the extent to which forgiveness motivated a sense of shame and
subsequently prosocial responding. In contrast, we focus on conditions where offender
culpability has been established.
We hypothesize that forgiveness –when it is perceived as benevolent –will be
received gratefully by offenders who will, in turn, provide evidence of their gratitude
through pro-relational intentions. Moreover, gratitude will play the primary mediating
role in this relation, even when other emotions and responses relevant to the receipt of
forgiveness are taken into account.
Competing mediators: Indebtedness, positive affect, and guilt
Forgiveness can make offenders feel indebted, so that they respond prosocially as a way of
paying off the debt (Kelln & Ellard, 1999). Thus, ﬁrst, we wanted to conﬁrm that it is
gratitude rather than associated feelings of indebtedness that primarily encourages pro-
How forgiveness promotes relationship restoration 3
Second, we wanted to be sure that the experience of gratitude is not confounded with
a more general sense of positive affect resulting from being forgiven (Hannon, Finkel,
Kumashiro, & Rusbult, 2012), especially given the well-established positive effects of
good mood on prosociality (Berkowitz, 1987).
Third, individuals can feel guilty for a victim’s largesse –Especially when their
benevolent response may be construed as a sacriﬁce. Related research indicates that guilt
is associated with feelings of undeservingness (Feather, 1999) and negative socially
derived self-evaluations negatively impact self-concept (Leary, Terdal, Tambor, & Downs,
1995). More directly, forgiveness has been shown to increase offenders’ sense of shame
(Struthers et al., 2008), a construct closely related to guilt. In turn, individuals may be
motivated to reduce guilt by acting prosocially (e.g., the negative state relief model;
Cialdini, Baumann, & Kenrick, 1981). As such, the measurement of guilt (and
indebtedness) also presents an opportunity to test the directionality of our main
hypothesis: Forgiveness encourages offender pro-relational intentions because it primes a
positive emotional state –speciﬁcally, gratitude –more than it motivates a desire to
alleviate a negative emotional state.
Perceived motives for forgiving
While forgiveness at the interpersonal level is generally conceptualized as a benevolent
response to transgressors, victims’ motives for forgiving are not always benevolent.
Victims also forgive to beneﬁt the self (Strelan et al., 2013), and self-concern is identiﬁed
in lay surveys as a primary reason to forgive (Younger, Piferi, Jobe, & Lawler, 2004).
Forgiving for the sake of the self helps victims to cope with their experience, enabling
them to move on from it. Yet, victims who focus on the self when forgiving also report
lower levels of forgiveness per se and lower levels of benevolence (Strelan et al., 2013). As
such, self-focused forgiveness does not possess the other-oriented, prosocial properties
commonly associated with a ‘genuinely’ forgiving response; it is a ‘gift’ to the self rather
than to the offender. Accordingly, offenders may be less sanguine about receiving
forgiveness that is not perceived as benevolent (Tsang, 2006b).
Thus, an additional contribution of the present research is to move beyond the
presumption that expressions of forgiveness are qualitatively the same. Rather, perceived
motives for forgiving vary according to whether they are other-focused or self-focused,
and will therefore exert differential effects on how offenders respond. We will test the
idea that forgiveness per se is not sufﬁcient to encourage offender gratitude and
subsequent pro-relational intentions. Rather, forgiveness must be perceived as benevo-
lently motivated (rather than self-focused).
Overview of studies
We report three experimental studies in which we test one main hypothesis: Forgiveness
motivates pro-relational intent among offenders, and this relation is mediated primarily by
offender gratitude –More so than by any feelings of positive mood, indebtedness, or guilt
that may also follow from being forgiven.
In Study 1, participants were led to believe they had let down their partner in a
laboratory-based game and received a forgiving message (or not). In Study 2, participants
recalled an occasion where they had transgressed against another person and had been
forgiven (or not). In addition, we measured perceived victim motives for forgiving. In
Study 3, participants imagined themselves transgressing in a situation in which perceived
4Louise Mooney et al.
motive for forgiveness was manipulated. In each study, gratitude was measured, along
with alternative mediators, guilt, affect, and indebtedness, as well as the dependent
variable (DV), pro-relational intentions.
Participants were Australian university students paid $10. Originally N=52, but after a
funnel debrief, eight participants were excluded because they did not believe the cover
story, were not conﬁdent they were playing with another participant, or did not follow the
instructions. The ﬁnal sample was therefore N=44 (35 females and 9 males; M
Participants completed the study in small even-numbered groups in a laboratory, seated at
individual computers separated by partitions. The experimental procedure was adapted
from Neville and Brodt (2010). As a cover story, participants were told the study was an
investigation of their use of online social networking sites, in particular how people
interact with each other when using an online, anonymous format. To add legitimacy,
participants responded to 10 items (not included for analysis) asking about their use of and
attitude towards social network sites. Next participants read:
For the second part of this study, you will be randomly matched with another participant...
we are interested in how people perform on tasks where they don’t know their teammate and
have limited communication ...we want to ensure that these tasks are meaningful to you and
that you both try your hardest. To help achieve this we have an added incentive: We have an
extra $20 to distribute between you and your partner. How it is distributed will depend on
your individual contributions to the partnership.
In order to qualify for the additional $20 payment, each of you must correctly answer at least
85% of the questions across two tasks. Regardless of how you as an individual perform, if one
of you is not successful at least 85% of the time, neither player qualiﬁes for the additional
payment. In other words, Part 2 is a team effort. Regardless of how you perform you will still
each receive a $10 payment; however, you now have the opportunity to take away some extra
cash with you.
Participants were led to believe the computer randomly matched them with another
player (in reality there was no such player). Participants were always identiﬁed as
‘Player 2’. The tasks involved completing ﬁve anagrams (two unsolvable) and ﬁve
number-sequences within a limited time period. Upon completion, regardless of how
participants objectively performed, they were presented with the following feedback:
Player 1, congratulations, you completed 92% of the tasks successfully.
Player 2, you completed 81% of the tasks successfully.
The target of 85% for both players was not reached; therefore no additional payment is
How forgiveness promotes relationship restoration 5
A textbox was presented on-screen for participants to type a message to their partner if
they wanted. Then, participants were randomly allocated to receiving a forgiving or a non-
hey player 2, not to worry about that at all. Would have loved the extra cash but it’s totally ﬁne -
please don’t feel bad or worry at all about it ☺it was good working with you. I’d be more than
happy to be partnered with you again ☺
player 2 what happened!How come you couldn’t do it!? Would’ve had more chance at the
extra cash with a different partner.
Participants completed measures in the following order. For this and subsequent studies,
all multi-item scales were summed and averaged, with higher scores indicating stronger
endorsement. Unless otherwise indicated, items are either 1 =strongly disagree and
7=strongly agree,or1=not at all and 7 =completely.
‘I feel forgiven’.
‘Right now I feel grateful/thankful/appreciative’ (Tsang, 2006a; a=.77).
Nine items derived from the positive affect subscale of the PANAS-X (Positive and Negative
Affect Schedule Expanded Form; Watson & Clark, 1994) were used: ‘Right now I feel active,
alert, attentive, determined, enthusiastic, excited, inspired, interested, strong’ (a=.90).
The 6-item subscale of the PANAS-X (Watson & Clark, 1994) was used: Participants
indicated the extent to which they currently felt guilty, ashamed, blameworthy, and
angry/disgusted/dissatisﬁed with themselves (a=.74).
‘I feel indebted/obligated’ (Tsang, 2006a; r=.34, p=.024).
‘I would be partnered with this person again’; ‘I could imagine myself being friends with
the other player outside the experiment’; and ‘I would feel comfortable asking the other
player for help in the future’ (a=.88).
6Louise Mooney et al.
Effects of forgiveness
Independent-sample t-tests examined the differences between forgiven and non-forgiven
conditions on key variables (descriptive and inferential statistics are reported in Table 1).
Forgiven participants were signiﬁcantly more likely to indicate they were forgiven than
Forgiven participants were signiﬁcantly more likely to express pro-relational intentions
Gratitude, guilt, positive affect, and indebtedness
Forgiven participants were signiﬁcantly more likely to feel grateful, and were marginally
more positive. Forgiven and unforgiven participants felt equivalently guilty and indebted.
Zero-order correlations between the potential mediators and pro-relational intentions are
shown in Table 2. It may be seen that gratitude and positive affect were associated with
pro-relational intentions, whereas guilt and indebtedness were not.
Bootstrapping was employed to test a multiple mediation model (5,000 samples,
bias-corrected; Preacher & Hayes, 2004). Gratitude, guilt, positive affect, and indebt-
edness were entered simultaneously as competing mediators. As shown in Table 3, the
total effect (TE; B=1.09, p=.001) for forgiveness on pro-relational intent was reduced
with the inclusion of the potential mediators (direct effect [DE] B=0.76, p=.001),
suggesting partial mediation through gratitude (B=0.19, CI
=[0.06, 0.41], i.e., zero
was not included in the CI
for gratitude) but not any of the other potential
There were no differences between those who sent a message (n=29) and those who did not (n=15) on pro-relational
intentions (p>.05). Also, considering the well-established link between apology and forgiveness (McCullough et al., 1998), we
categorized messages as apologetic (n=19) or not (n=10) and tested for an interaction between apology and forgiveness on
pro-relational intentions. There was none (p>.05).
This study was conducted last, as part of the ﬁrst author’s PhD. With an eye towards further research, for exploratory purposes a
measure of prosocial behaviour was also included, prior to the main measures. Participants were informed they could share the
$20 anyway ‘for being good sports’ (i.e., $10 each). They were each given an opportunity to amend their allocation. This was the
behavioural measure. Forgiven participants were more likely to give some of their allocation to the partner (M=$11.92,
SD =3.13 vs. non-forgiven M=$9.75, SD =3.43), t(43) =2.19, p=.034, d=0.66. Interestingly, none of gratitude,
positive affect, indebtedness, or guilt played a mediating role. We think this was due to the norm of reciprocity operating in this
particular aspect of the paradigm. That is, the demands of the situation required that offender behaviour be a direct response to
victim message (e.g., forgiven participants anticipated from the benevolent message they received that the partner would
subsequently act in a benevolent manner). We speculate that participants in each condition allocated reciprocally, providing a
useful insight for future research (i.e., situations in which the norm of reciprocity is allowed to operate may obscure effects of
gratitude and other relevant emotional responses).
How forgiveness promotes relationship restoration 7
In summary, forgiven participants expressed more pro-relational intentions. They were
also more grateful, and experienced marginally more positive affect. They felt just as guilty
and indebted as unforgiven participants. Importantly, consistent with our hypothesis,
gratitude provides an explanation for why receiving forgiveness results in pro-relational
intentions, and was the only potential mediator to have such an effect.
The main aim of Study 1 was to set up standardized conditions so that participants believed
they had actually let another person down. Although we successfully achieved this aim, for
obvious ethical reasons the transgression was benign. Thus, the primary aim of Study2 was
to test the extent to which the ﬁndings of the laboratory-based transgression in Study 1
could be generalized tomore serious and personally involvedexperiencesfrom individuals’
lives. Study 2 therefore employed a recall paradigm in which participants were randomly
Table 1. Study 1 descriptive and inferential statistics for manipulation check and pro-relational and
emotional responses (N=44)
No forgiveness (n=20)
2.65 (1.18) 4.83 (0.87) 7.05 .001 2.10
Pro-relational intent 2.92 (1.08) 5.10 (0.78) 7.71 .001 2.31
Gratitude 4.12 (0.76) 4.79 (0.66) 3.14 .003 0.94
Guilt 3.41 (0.80) 3.33 (0.87) 0.32 .75 0.09
Positive affect 3.74 (0.77) 4.21 (0.88) 1.86 .070 0.56
Indebtedness 3.35 (1.09) 3.69 (1.19) 0.97 .33 0.30
Table 2. Zero-order correlations between mediators and pro-relational intentions across studies 1–3
affect Guilt Indebtedness
1 Positive affect .39**
1 Guilt .07 .29
3 .24* .14
1 Indebtedness .08 .13 .66***
3 .24* .03 .57***
1 Pro-relational intent .65*** .48*** .18 .16
2 .42*** .26** .26** –
3 .46*** .13 .66*** .59***
Note.*p<.05; **p<.01; ***p<.001;
8Louise Mooney et al.
allocated to recalling a transgression from their past in which they had hurt another and
were forgiven (or not). A second aim was to begin to test the extent to which the perceived
motive for forgiveness affects offender responses to forgiveness.
There were 118 participants (82 females, 36 males; M
=27; SD =11.66): 40 Australian
university students participating for course credit and 78 from the general community
recruited through email snowballing by the ﬁrst author.
Procedure and materials
The study was conducted online. Participants were randomly assigned to recall an event
from their past where they had transgressed against another person and were forgiven
Table 3. Summary of bootstrapping analyses for indirect effects of forgiveness on pro-relational
intentions via gratitude, guilt, affect, and indebtedness (Study 1; N=44)
Forgiveness on... Gratitude 0.34 .11 3.14 .003
Guilt 0.04 .13 0.32 .75
Positive affect 0.23 .12 1.86 .07
Indebtedness 0.17 .17 0.97 .33
Gratitude on... Pro-relational intent 0.56 .16 3.49 .001
Guilt on... 0.41 .18 2.29 .027
Positive affect on... 0.31 .14 2.21 .03
Indebtedness on... 0.30 .13 2.29 .03
IV-DV Total effects
Forgiveness on... Pro-relational intent 1.09 .14 7.77 .001
IV-DV Direct effects
controlled for potential
Pro-relational intent 0.76 .12 6.15 .001
effect Boot SE
Gratitude 0.19 .09 0.06 0.41
Guilt 0.01 .06 0.07 0.18
Positive affect 0.08 .07 0.00 0.27
Indebtedness 0.05 .06 0.02 0.23
There was no measure of indebtedness, as the relevant items were unfortunately overlooked when the study was set up online.
While obviously not ideal, it may be noted that key relations with indebtedness were the same in studies 1 and 3 (forgiveness was
unrelated to indebtedness; indebtedness positively predicted prosocial intent), such that indebtedness did not play a mediating
role. Given the other competing mediators also had negligible impact, the oversight may be less of an issue.
How forgiveness promotes relationship restoration 9
(n=65) or not (n=53). They provided a brief description of the event and then
responded to measures (presented randomly in blocks) regarding the event.
‘I think the victim has forgiven me for what happened’.
Given the recall nature of the paradigm, it was important to measure transgression-
speciﬁc variables that could potentially moderate the effects of the experimental
condition. Following a meta-analysis of the main transgression-speciﬁc predictors of
forgiveness (Fehr et al., 2010), participants reported on time elapsed since the event
(coded into days); closeness with victim (‘Currently we are close’); the perceived
seriousness of the behaviour (‘How serious were your actions?’); perceived responsibility
(‘I was responsible for what happened’); and hurtfulness of their actions (‘This person was
hurt by my actions’). Item anchors were 1 = not at all close/serious/responsible/hurt;
7= extremely close/seriously/responsible/hurt.
It was measured with the same three items as Study 1 (a=.96).
‘Right now I feel... happy; hopeful; pleased; fulﬁlled’ (four items; a=.84).
‘Right now I feel... guilty; ashamed; proud (recoded)’ (three items; a=.71).
They were measured with four items drawn from Wallace, Exline, and Baumeister
(2008): ‘I wanted to... preserve (mend) my relationship with the other person’;
‘...treat the other person better than I did before’; ‘...do everything possible to avoid
repeating my behaviour’; and ‘...do something positive to make up for what happened’
Perceived victim motives for forgiving
Participants in the forgiven condition attributed motives for their victim’s forgiveness.
Following Strelan et al. (2013), forgiven participants responded to four separate items: ‘I
think this person forgave me because they... genuinely cared for me (benevolence
motive); wanted our relationship to go back to normal (relationship motive); wanted to
hold something over me (ulterior motive); needed to in order to cope with what
happened’ (self-concerned motive).
10 Louise Mooney et al.
Participants reported transgressing against close friends, relationship partners, and family
members. Offences ranged from inﬁdelity to other forms of betrayal including revealing
personal secrets, lack of consideration and neglect, and physical aggression. As the means
in Table 4 indicate, transgressor ratings of harm, seriousness, and responsibility were, on
average, high. Thus, the basic premise of the study –to examine more objectively serious
transgressions –was met.
Effects of forgiveness
Independent-sample t-tests examined the differences between forgiven and non-forgiven
participants on key and transgression-speciﬁc variables (for descriptive and inferential
statistics, see Table 4).
Participants in the forgiven condition were signiﬁcantly more likely to perceive they had
Forgiven participants were signiﬁcantly more likely to report intentions to behave pro-
Gratitude, guilt, and positive affect
Forgiven participants were signiﬁcantly more likely to express gratitude and positive
affect, and marginally less likely to express guilt.
There were no differences between condition on perceived hurt, transgression
seriousness, responsibility, and time elapsed. However, forgiven participants were
signiﬁcantly more likely to indicate they were currently close to their transgressor. We
subsequently mean-centred closeness and computed an interaction term with forgiveness
condition. A regression analysis with the two main effects entered at step 1 and the
interaction at step 2 indicated closeness did not moderate the effect of forgiveness on
intentions F(1, 114) =0.19, p=.66.
Correlations between the potential mediators and pro-relational intentions are presented
in Table 2. It may be seen that gratitude, positive affect, and guilt were each positively
associated with pro-relational intentions.
To test the main hypothesis, we employed the same bootstrapping procedure as in
Study 1. As summarized in Table 5, and as already indicated by the t-tests, forgiveness was
positively associated with gratitude and positive affect and negatively with guilt.
Consistent with the correlations, gratitude and guilt were each positively associated with
How forgiveness promotes relationship restoration 11
pro-relational intentions; and gratitude and guilt fully mediated the relation between
forgiveness and pro-relational intentions (TE B=0.44, p=.001; DE B=0.13 p=.42).
We contrasted the indirect effects of gratitude (B=0.34, CI
=[0.06, 0.74]) and guilt
=[0.21, 0.01]) and found that the effect of gratitude was
signiﬁcantly stronger (B=0.42, CI
Table 4. Study 2 descriptive and inferential statistics for effects of forgiveness on manipulation check,
pro-relational intentions, and emotion and background variables (N=118)
No forgiveness (n=53)
2.94 (1.77) 5.91 (1.26) 10.61 .001 1.93
Pro-relational intent 5.14 (1.54) 6.01 (1.30) 3.36 .001 0.61
Gratitude 2.50 (1.84) 5.49 (1.55) 9.61 .001 1.76
Guilt 4.60 (1.48) 4.07 (1.58) 1.87 .063 0.35
Positive affect 2.34 (1.18) 4.09 (1.60) 6.62 .001 1.24
Time elapsed (days) 1,465 (1,967) 1,360 (2,415) 0.25 .80 0.05
Current closeness 2.47 (1.87) 5.37 (1.98) 8.11 .001 1.50
Perceived harm severity 5.26 (1.73) 5.51 (1.48) 0.82 .41 0.15
Perceived seriousness 5.00 (1.81) 5.03 (1.61) 0.10 .92 0.02
Responsibility 5.04 (1.90) 5.38 (1.77) 1.02 .31 0.18
Table 5. Summary of bootstrapping analyses for indirect effects of forgiveness on pro-relational
intentions via gratitude, guilt, and positive affect (Study 2; N=118)
Forgiveness on... Gratitude 1.50 .16 9.61 .001
Guilt 0.27 .14 1.87 .063
Positive affect 0.87 .13 6.62 .001
Gratitude on... Pro-relational intent 0.22 .09 2.41 .02
Guilt on... 0.33 .08 3.88 .001
Positive affect on... 0.06 .12 0.56 .58
IV-DV Total effects
Forgiveness on... Pro-relational intent 0.44 .13 3.36 .001
IV-DV Direct effects
controlled for potential
Pro-relational intent 0.13 .16 0.81 .42
Mediators Boot indirect effect Boot SE
Gratitude 0.34 .17 0.06 0.74
Guilt 0.08 .05 0.21 0.01
Positive affect 0.06 .11 0.16 0.29
12 Louise Mooney et al.
Relations between victim motives for forgiving and offender pro-relational intentions
We have further hypothesized that to encourage gratitude and subsequently pro-relational
intentions, forgiveness needs to be perceived as benevolent rather than self-concerned.
Thus, we tested the extent to which gratitude mediated between offenders’ perceptions
of victims’ motives for forgiving and offender pro-relational intentions. This set of analyses
only involved forgiven participants (n=65). We had measured four potential motives.
Two were benevolent in nature (relationship-focused, altruistic) and two were selﬁsh in
nature (self-focused, ulterior).
Relationship-focused and altruism motives were each associated with both intentions
and gratitude (rs range from .43 to .56, ps<.001); the ulterior motive was negatively
associated with intentions, albeit marginally (r=.23, p=.06), and gratitude (r=.49,
p<.001); and the self-focused motive was unrelated to both intentions and gratitude
(ps>.6). Given there were multiple predictors, we tested mediation with a hierarchical
regression, entering the motives at step 1, gratitude at step 2, and pro-relational intentions
as the outcome variable. Only the altruism motive was signiﬁcantly associated with
intentions at step 1 (b=.446, p<.001). The beta for altruism motive reduced somewhat
at step 2 (b=.377, p<.001), suggesting partial mediation by gratitude. A subsequent
bootstrapping analysis conﬁrmed this was the case (B=0.24, CI
=[0.08, 0.48]). Thus,
here is evidence that forgiveness must be perceived as benevolent. When that is the case,
pro-relational intentions are more likely to be reported.
Our central hypothesis was once again supported. Forgiveness seems to encourage
offenders to report pro-relational intentions, and this relation seems to exist because
offenders feel grateful. This time, one of the potential alternative mediators –guilt –played
a subordinate mediating role. However, it may be noted that the effect of forgiveness on
guilt was marginal and in a negative direction such that receiving forgiveness was in fact
associated with reduced guilt, which in turn encouraged pro-relational intentions. The
direction of the effect may reﬂect the norms that operate in close relationships –That is,
close partners may expect forgiveness.
Finally, the quality of forgiveness appears to matter. The more that forgiven
participants perceive their forgiveness was benevolently motivated, the more likely they
were to express pro-relational intentions, and this relation occurs partly (indirectly)
through the agency of gratitude.
A limitation of studies 1 and 2 is that non-forgiven participants had nothing to be grateful
for, thus potentially biasing results in one direction. Thus, the ﬁrst aim of Study 3 was to
provide a more stringent test of the gratitude hypothesis. Conceptually, too, we are
interested in how forgiven victims respond. Moreover, and consistent with our
hypothesizing, the correlational analysis of perceived forgiving motives in Study 2
indicated that the quality of received forgiveness is important. Thus, in Study 3 we
replaced the non-forgiveness condition with a new forgiveness condition, one in which
forgiveness was perceived as selﬁsh rather than benevolent. Consistent with theorizing
about gratitude, we hypothesized that participants forgiven for benevolent reasons would
How forgiveness promotes relationship restoration 13
respond more prosocially than those forgiven for selﬁsh reasons. Again, gratitude was
expected to play the primary mediating role in this relation.
The second aim of Study 3 was to test the extent to which key relations generalize to a
third methodological approach, wherein participants responded to a standardized
hypothetical transgression. While there is conjecture about hypothetical transgressions,
insofar as people may not always do what they say they will do (Nisbett & Wilson, 1977;
but see Robinson & Clore, 2001 for opposing evidence), we had already established that
the forgiveness ?gratitude ?pro-relational intentions sequence occurs in the case of
an actual, standardized transgression (Study 1) and in the recall of more serious and
contextually rich transgressions (Study 2). Thus, a hypothetical transgression enabled us
to replicate the tighter experimental design of Study 1, but placed participants in a less
benign transgression situation, as per Study 2, while at the same time avoiding much of the
noise inevitably associated with a recall paradigm. As such, it possessed the advantages of
both previous approaches.
Participants were 70 psychology undergraduate students at a large Australian university,
receiving course credit (42 women, 28 men; M
=19; SD =2.57).
Procedure and materials
Participants were randomly allocated to a benevolent or selﬁsh forgiveness condition.
They read a hypothetical scenario which drew features from Kelln and Ellard’s (1999)
experiment. Participants imagine signing up for a study run by one of their tutors.
The participant deliberately ignores the instructions on a complex computerized
task, causing the computer to crash, and the researcher to lose data, cancel remaining
participants, wait for days while a technician ﬁxes the problem, and hope that it is
not too late in the semester to get more participants. The next day, the
researcher catches up with the participant and indicates forgiveness. However, soon
after, the participant overhears the researcher telling someone else about what had
Participants in the benevolent forgiveness condition read that the researcher indicated
forgiveness because she:
...genuinely wanted to make sure you weren’t upset about what happened. She says that by
telling you she was cool with what happened and wasn’t angry, she was hoping that she
would relieve you of any guilt or bad feelings you may have been experiencing regarding what
Participants in the selﬁsh forgiveness condition read that the researcher indicated
forgiveness because she:
...wanted to make sure she received really positive student evaluations this semester. She
says that by telling you that she was cool with what happened and wasn’t angry, she was
hoping she would score really high when it came time for you to evaluate her.
Participants then completed the measures, randomly presented in blocks.
14 Louise Mooney et al.
It consisted of four items: ‘Thinking back to what the experimenter said to you before your
lecture, why do you think the experimenter said this to you?’ (1 = for their own sake;
7=for your sake); ‘The experimenter said this to me because she... cares about my
feelings’; ‘...wanted to look good in front of other people (including me)’ (reverse-
coded); and ‘... was hoping to gain something from it’ (reverse-coded; a=.87).
We measured perceived transgression seriousness with ‘How serious were your
actions in not reading the instructions?’ (1 =not at all serious;7 =extremely serious)
and perceived harm severity with ‘How upset do you think the experimenter was by your
actions?’ (1 =not at all upset;7 =extremely upset).
It was measured with the same three items as in the previous studies (a=.90).
‘I would feel... happy; glad; content’ (three items; a=.85).
It was measured with the same three items as in Study 2 (a=.67).
It was measured with the same two items as in Study 1 (r=.81, p<.001).
‘I would apologize to the experimenter’ and ‘How motivated are you to make things better
with the experimenter?’ (1 =not at all;7 =very much so;r=.38, p<.001).
Effects of forgiveness
Independent-sample t-tests were employed to examine the differences across the two
conditions (for descriptive and inferential statistics, see Table 6).
Participants in the benevolent forgiveness condition were signiﬁcantly more likely to
perceive that victim forgiveness was benevolently motivated.
Participants did not differ on how serious they perceived their behaviour, or how upset
they perceived the victim to be.
How forgiveness promotes relationship restoration 15
Participants forgiven for benevolent reasons indicated signiﬁcantly greater pro-relational
Gratitude, guilt, affect, and indebtedness
Participants perceiving benevolent forgiveness indicated signiﬁcantly greater gratitude.
There were no differences between conditions on guilt, positive affect, and indebted-
Correlations between the potential mediators and pro -relational intentions are reported in
Table 2. It may be seen from Table 2 that all of the mediators apart from positive affect
were positively associated with pro-relational intentions.
To test the main hypothesis, we again employed bootstrapping. As shown in Table 7,
and conﬁrming the t-tests, forgiven offenders were more likely to be grateful. Consistent
with the correlations, gratitude, guilt, and indebtedness tended to be positively associated
with pro-relational intent; and the effect of forgiveness on pro-relational intent was
signiﬁcantly reduced once the potential mediators were included (TE B=0.96, p=.006;
DE B=0.42, p=.009), with gratitude playing the sole mediating role (B=0.23
Study 3 extended the ﬁrst two studies by keeping forgiveness constant and manipulating
the perceived motivation for forgiving. Consistent with our main hypothesis, and echoing
the correlational analysis of Study 2, the more that participants perceived forgiveness was
benevolently motivated, the more likely they were to indicate pro-relational intentions.
Once more this relation occurred indirectly through gratitude with positive mood,
indebtedness, and guilt playing no mediating role.
Table 6. Study 3 means (and standard deviations) for manipulation check, background variables, and
pro-relational intentions, gratitude, guilt, and affect (N=70)
check –Forgive motive
2.59 (1.28) 4.49 (1.24) 6.23 .001 1.51
Seriousness of actions 4.89 (1.25) 4.28 (1.55) 1.83 .071 0.43
Perceived victim distress 5.39 (1.33) 5.75 (0.84) 1.31 .19 0.32
Pro-relational intent 4.30 (0.21) 5.27 (0.23) 2.86 .006 4.40
Gratitude 3.09 (1.49) 4.23 (1.80) 2.89 .005 0.69
Guilt 5.08 (1.24) 5.45 (1.13) 1.29 .20 0.31
Positive affect 2.90 (1.34) 3.41 (1.36) 1.59 .12 0.38
Indebtedness 4.16 (1.71) 4.62 (1.67) 1.15 .25 0.27
16 Louise Mooney et al.
As predicted, across three experimental studies forgiveness encouraged offenders to feel
grateful, which seemed to prompt them to express pro-relational intentions towards their
forgiver. Notably, even when three closely related responses to forgiveness are taken into
account –positive affect, guilt, and indebtedness –gratitude still plays the main mediating
role. Finally, correlational (Study 2) and experimental (Study 3) procedures suggest that it
is not the receipt of forgiveness per se that necessarily encourages gratitude and pro-
relational intentions. Rather, forgiveness must be interpreted by offenders as benevolent
rather than selﬁshly motivated.
These results are consistent with the few previous studies demonstrating the pro-
relational effects of forgiveness on transgressors (Kelln & Ellard, 1999). However, the
novel contribution of the present research is that it provides consistent support for an
explanation as to why culpable transgressors may indicate pro-relational intentions as a
response to being forgiven: They are grateful for it. Gratitude functions, in part, to alert
beneﬁciaries to those individuals who would make good interaction partners (Algoe,
2012). A partner who is willing to benevolently forgive a transgression rather than retaliate
or seek revenge is presumably such an individual. It would appear advantageous for
offenders to respond in ways that would promote continuing interactions with the victim.
Table 7. Summary of bootstrapping analyses for indirect effects of benevolent vs selﬁsh forgiveness
conditions on pro-relational intentions via gratitude, guilt, positive affect, and indebtedness (Study 3;
Forgiveness on... Gratitude 1.14 .39 2.89 .005
Guilt 0.37 .29 1.29 .20
Positive affect 0.51 .32 1.59 .12
Indebtedness 0.47 .41 1.15 .25
Gratitude on... Pro-relational intent 0.19 .10 1.95 .055
Guilt on... 0.52 .13 4.06 .001
Positive affect on... 0.01 .12 0.11 .91
Indebtedness on... 0.24 .08 2.86 .006
IV-DV Total effects
Forgiveness on... Pro-relational intent 0.96 .34 2.86 .006
IV-DV Direct effects
Pro-relational intent 0.42 .25 1.72 .09
effect Boot SE
Gratitude 0.23 .14 0.04 0.63
Guilt 0.18 .15 0.07 0.53
Positive affect 0.00 .08 0.14 0.20
Indebtedness 0.11 .11 0.05 0.40
How forgiveness promotes relationship restoration 17
Similarly, an expression of gratitude –manifested as pro-relational intentions –has the
potential to alert victims to the positive qualities of the offender, further encouraging the
victim to renew the relationship.
We measured guilt, indebtedness, and positive affect to demonstrate that they do not
provide alternative explanations for relations between forgiveness and pro-relational
intentions. None of these variables, apart from guilt in Study 2 (where the effect was still
subordinate to that of gratitude), played a mediating role. It is worth observing that while
negative affect –speciﬁcally, shame –may be experienced when a per son does not believe
they have done anything to make forgiveness relevant but is explicitly forgiven (Struthers
et al., 2008), negative emotions could also arise when one is culpable (as in the present
studies) and is explicitly forgiven. Speciﬁcally, transgressors could experience guilt and
indebtedness for receiving a gift (forgiveness) that they might not necessarily perceive
they deserve or expect –Especially when the ‘gift’ is given in response to hurtful
behaviour. The fact these relations did not eventuate provides some evidence of
discriminant validity: Forgiveness encourages offender pro-relational intentions more
because offenders are grateful for forgiveness and less because they wish to alleviate
resultant negative feelings.
Taken together, the negligible effects of guilt, indebtedness, and positive affect serve to
highlight the strikingly consistent ﬁndings for gratitude. Gratitude always plays a
mediating role between forgiveness and pro-relational intentions regardless of whether
the victim is a stranger (Study 1), a close other (Study 2), or part of an instrumental
relationship (Study 3), and regardless of whether the transgression is in real time and
benign; serious and recalled from one’s own past; or standardized as a hypothetical
Next, we identify avenues for future research. First, offenders do not necessarily wait
passively to be forgiven. In situations where they are clearly culpable –as in the studies
reported here –most transgressors would presumably offer some indication of apology.
For example, even in Study 1 where participants believed they were interacting with a
stranger, the majority sent apologetic messages (see footnote 2). Given the centrality of
apology in predicting forgiveness (for a meta-analysis, see Fehr et al., 2010), its impact on
gratitude and subsequent offender prosocial responding should be studied in future. For
example, the negative effect of non-forgiveness may be exacerbated if a transgressor has
ﬁrst apologized. Or, if an offender has already apologized, then forgiveness may be
perceived as less altruistic and more likely to be ‘expected’. In this case, it is possible that
the effect of gratitude may be weakened (McCullough et al., 2008).
Second, while the present studies provide a ‘baseline’ indication of relations between
forgiveness, gratitude, and prosocial intentions, people do not always communicate
forgiveness so explicitly. In addition, victim’s motives for forgiving are not so readily
available to offenders. Other researchers could investigate the extent to which
relationship-speciﬁc cues and gestures –which often serve as behavioural proxies for
forgiveness (Finkel et al., 2002) –replicate the effects we have obtained here. Further, the
ecological validity of the ﬁndings for perceived motive could be enhanced by
manipulating victim character. For example, the victim could be described as either
Machiavellian or altruistic; we should expect the latter’s forgiveness to be perceived as
more genuine than the former, and therefore more gratefully received.
Third, a feature of the present research is that hypothesized relations between
forgiveness, gratitude, and prosocial intentions were observed even when relationships in
two of the studies (1 and 3) were clearly not close. What might eventuate if a variable
strongly related to forgiveness, relationship quality (for a meta-analysis, see Fehr et al.,
18 Louise Mooney et al.
2010), was factored in as a moderator of forgiveness? It may depend on how relationship
quality is operationalized. Offenders who highly value their relationship want it to
continue; because their transgression has threatened the future of the relationship,
forgiveness in such a relationship should be received gratefully. However, relations may
not be so clear when relationships are operationalized on the basis of whether they are
close or not. On one hand, one might intuit that offenders forgiven by a close other might
feel more grateful. On the other hand –and as suggested above in relation to apology –
offenders may expect a close victim to forgive because they are close. When an action
(such as forgiving) is perceived as normative, then gratitude is less likely to be experienced
(McCullough et al., 2008).
Fourth, the mediators and the DV, pro-relational intent, were measured at essentially
the same time point. As such, our evidence for the effect of gratitude on pro-relational
intent relies on statistical inference. Future research should conﬁrm the relation by
developing an appropriate behavioural measure of pro-relational intent. To that end, it is
well established that intentions are good predictors of behaviour when the measured
intention is proximal to the behaviour (e.g., the theory of planned behaviour; for a review,
see Ajzen, 1991). Given that the items employed in the present studies were explicitly
behaviourally oriented, one should be conﬁdent that the pro-relational intentions
reported here would translate into pro-relational behaviours.
Fifth, the cross-sectional nature of the studies means that conclusions are limited to the
short-term effects of receiving forgiveness. Future research may investigate how offenders
respond after repeatedly being forgiven. Forgiving sometimes encourages recidivism
(McNulty, 2011). Offenders may be grateful for forgiveness and may indicate pro-
relational intentions, at least in the short term. But, one unintended long-term effect of the
forgiveness ?gratitude ?pro-relational intentions sequence could be that it encour-
ages victims in dysfunctional relationships to attribute more positive qualities to their
offending partner and their relationship than is warranted or healthy.
How does forgiveness facilitate relationship restoration? Much previous research,
conducted from the perspective of the victim, indicates that valued relationships are
inherently motivating. Because victims are motivated to preserv e valued relationships that
are under threat, they use forgiveness as a means by which to do so. However, victim
motivation to continue the relationship does not necessarily guarantee that the
relationship will continue; there must also be buy-in from the very person whose actions
threatened the relationship in the ﬁrst place. The present research therefore addresses
what happens after forgiveness has been granted.
In terms of theorizing, here is unique and further evidence of the powerful effects of
forgiveness when it is manifested on the basis of its core interpersonal characteristic –
That is, as a benevolent gesture. While there may be many circumstances in which self-
focused forgiveness beneﬁts victims, studies 2 and 3 suggest that anything other than
benevolently inspired forgiveness will be interpreted less positively by recipients. Clearly,
the way victims communicate forgiveness is important. Forgiveness with a benevolent
inﬂection sends a message to offenders that they are valued and re-included in the victims’
moral circle (Wenzel et al., 2008) and that the slate is wiped clean (Enright, 1996). The
benevolent nature of such messages may be enhanced if offenders perceive that forgiving
gestures reﬂect an element of sacriﬁce on the victim’s behalf: That is, despite being hurt,
victims respond not in kind but, rather, positively.
In applied settings, therefore, where relationship restoration is a goal –such as
everyday interpersonal relationships, and counselling, organizational, justice, and
intergroup contexts –care needs to be taken that forgiveness is appropriately
How forgiveness promotes relationship restoration 19
communicated. Offenders need to perceive that forgiveness is inclusive and benevolent.
In the event that it is, forgiveness should be gratefully received; subsequently, the
fundamental human need for social harmony will more likely be met.
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Received 15 January 2015; revised version received 9 June 2015
How forgiveness promotes relationship restoration 21