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Examining Group Forgiveness 1
Running head: EXAMINING GROUP FORGIVENESS
Examining Group Forgiveness: Conceptual and Empirical Issues
Examining Group Forgiveness 2
What is group forgiveness and can it be measured in an unambiguous way? Recently, scientists
have begun to consider the role group forgiveness may play in reducing conflict and enhancing
prospects for peace among groups. The forgiveness construct has been, until very recently,
primarily operationalized as an individual phenomenon. Increasingly, it is being mapped onto
groups. These initial attempts either conflate individual and group capacities or insufficiently
describe group forgiveness, rendering the construct ambiguous. While promoting group
forgiveness might motivate intergroup peace, empirical support depends on coherent
operationalization and sound measurement. We begin by examining the definition of
interpersonal forgiveness and the emerging literature on group forgiveness. Based on this review,
we present a philosophically coherent operationalization of group forgiveness. Finally, we
consider future research directions for researchers interested in studying group forgiveness.
Keywords: group forgiveness, intergroup peace, group dynamics, measurement
Examining Group Forgiveness 3
Examining Group Forgiveness: Conceptual and Empirical Issues
Intergroup conflict seems to be ubiquitous in human society. Examples of group conflict
are easy to identify across different types of social groupings. A small sample of these include
civil conflict in Chile and in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; religious and political
conflict between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland and between Israel and Palestine;
intra-religious sectarian and tribal conflict in the Middle East; and socio-demographic conflict
along racial lines between White police officers and African-American citizens in Ferguson,
Missouri. Of course, this is just a small subset of conflicts that receive significant news coverage.
There are many other tragic examples of human rights violations and aggression between groups.
The cost of intergroup conflict is significant and multifaceted. There are social and
economic costs for the loss of life, the destruction of property, and the mental health of those
involved (Masco, 2013; McLernon & Cairns, 2001). The perceived injustices from these losses
can result in anger and hate creating cycles of violence and retaliation that go on for generations
(McLernon, Cairns, Hewstone, & Smith, 2004). Some have argued that forgiveness between
groups might have an important role in peace efforts (e.g. Bright & Exline, 2012) and research
on group forgiveness has already begun (Van Tongeren, Burnette, O’Boyle, Worthington, &
Forsyth, 2014). Although work in this area is of high quality there is an important weakness.
Much of the conceptual work on interpersonal forgiveness has been applied to group forgiveness
(Roe, 2007). Attempts to extend interpersonal forgiveness to groups often conflate individual and
group capacities or describe group forgiveness in ambiguous terms. Empirical study of group
forgiveness depends on a clear definition of the construct and sound measurement. At this time,
there is no philosophically grounded and tested measure of group forgiveness.
Examining Group Forgiveness 4
We believe it is time to take a step back and philosophically examine what, precisely, it
means when a group forgives another group. Several questions are particularly important when
considering group forgiveness: Is it logically coherent to say that groups forgive? Do groups
have cognitions, behaviors, and emotions? If so, what are the psychological components that
comprise the activity of one group forgiving another? Should group forgiveness be democratic?
Can a third party forgive a group? Answering these questions will allow researchers to develop
conceptually appropriate measures of group forgiveness and improve scientific inquiry into the
role of forgiveness in peace.
We explore some of these questions. After we briefly review the definition of
interpersonal forgiveness and the research that follows from it, we turn to group forgiveness to
see if it has been understood properly from a philosophical perspective and thus operationalized
well from a scientific perspective. We then propose a definition of group forgiveness and
recommend a measure be developed for research purposes. We end by generating scientific
research questions. We will use the term “group forgiveness” to encompass other terms used in
the literature including intergroup forgiveness and political forgiveness.
Definition of Forgiveness
Scholars have made interpersonal forgiveness a well-defined and clearly articulated
construct (e.g. Enright & North, 1998), which has allowed forgiveness research to thrive across
several disciplines of the social sciences (Klatt & Enright, 2008). A general consensus exists in
the published psychological literature that interpersonal forgiveness involves acknowledging that
one has been wronged and relinquishing resentment despite the injustice one has experienced
(Worthington, 2005). A common definition of interpersonal forgiveness is, “A willingness to
Examining Group Forgiveness 5
abandon one’s right to resentment, negative judgment, and indifferent behavior toward one who
unjustly injured us, while fostering the undeserved qualities of compassion, generosity, and even
love toward him or her” (Enright, Freedman, & Rique, 1998, p. 47). Although nuances exist in
the way scholars from various fields and philosophical orientations define forgiveness, good
operational definitions have been developed that allow for reliable and valid measurement.
Within the past 25 years hundreds of empirical studies and numerous edited volumes
have emerged with an emphasis on the psychology of interpersonal forgiveness. The research on
this topic is substantial and multi-disciplinary (e.g. Fincham, Paleari, & Regalia, 2002;
McCullough et al. 1998; Wade, Hoyt, Kidwell, & Worthington, 2014). Research investigating
psychological interventions intended to help people heal emotionally by forgiving others who
have been unjust to them is important in the discussion of group forgiveness. Intervention
research demonstrates that participants experience diminished anger, anxiety, and/or
psychological depression and increased self-esteem and general well-being (Wade et al., 2014).
These positive outcomes have been found in intervention research conducted with participants
living in socially contentious regions such as Belfast, Northern Ireland (Enright, Knutson, Holter,
Baskin, & Knutson, 2007). If forgiveness can help individuals cope with unfair treatment, it is
possible groups that have experienced injustice can also benefit from forgiveness.
To understand how the term group forgiveness has been defined, used, and interpreted by
scholars in this field, we conducted a comprehensive literature search using PsycINFO,
SocINDEX, Academic Search Premier, Web of Knowledge, Proquest Research Library, Social
Sciences Full-Text, ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, ERIC, Family and Social
Studies Worldwide, International Bibliography of the Social Sciences, Women’s Studies
Examining Group Forgiveness 6
International, Dissertation Abstracts, and Google Scholar. We used the keywords group
forgiveness, intergroup forgiveness, political forgiveness, forgiveness and peace, and forgiveness
and reconciliation. Furthermore, we manually reviewed reference lists in relevant articles and
books. We considered both empirical and theoretical articles for inclusion. We sought to locate
all available literature through August 8, 2013. We initially located 138 journal articles and book
chapters, and after examining the full-texts, we excluded 113 articles that did not directly and
substantively addressed group forgiveness. With the remaining 25 articles (see Table 1), we
recorded how the authors defined interpersonal and group forgiveness. For empirical articles, we
recorded how they operationalized their measurement of group forgiveness.
Conceptualizing Group Forgiveness. We identify two major ways scholars conceptualize
group forgiveness. First, several authors use a strategy we refer to as “translating definition.”
Rather than completely re-conceptualizing forgiveness on the group level, these scholars define
group forgiveness as a simple expansion of interpersonal forgiveness; individual victims become
“victim groups,” and perpetrators become “perpetrator groups.” We distinguish two levels within
this category, explicit and implicit. Some authors clearly state that their definitions of group
forgiveness are based on the assumptions they hold about interpersonal forgiveness. In other
cases, researchers make an implicit assumption that group forgiveness is an extension of
interpersonal forgiveness. For instance, Tam et al. (2008) used a definition of interpersonal
forgiveness in their discussion of group forgiveness, implying a translation.
The second major way scholars conceptualize group forgiveness is by claiming that it is
“qualitatively different” from interpersonal forgiveness. We also distinguish explicit and implicit
levels within this category. The scholars we position on the explicit level openly and directly
express that a qualitative difference exists between interpersonal and group forgiveness.
Examining Group Forgiveness 7
Generally, these authors appeal to social identity theory (Tajfel & Turner, 1986) to suggest that
there is an identity shift from the personal to the social when forgiveness occurs on the group
level. This shift facilitates the process of group forgiveness (Ferguson et al., 2007; Kira et al.,
2009). On the implicit level of the “qualitatively different” category, authors attempt to outline a
difference between interpersonal and group forgiveness, yet they do not straightforwardly state
such a difference. For example, Neto, Pinto, and Mullet (2007) explain that group forgiveness
cannot occur on an individual level. This implies a meaningful difference between the two
processes, yet they do not state what the difference is.
Operationalizing Group Forgiveness. Research psychologists have operationalized group
forgiveness using self-assessments. One example comes from the work of McLernon et al.
(2004) who modified the Enright Forgiveness Inventory to develop the Group Enright
Forgiveness Inventory which was meant to assess one group’s forgiveness of another group. For
each self-report item measuring forgiveness, a respondent saw the word “I.” For example, “I feel
__ towards him/her/them.” It appears that McLearn et al. (2004) used “I” to mean “I as a
member of my group.” To be more consistent with the meaning of group forgiveness, it may
have been better to phrase the items with group terms such as “we” or “our group.” We see the
same pattern of using “I” terms to assess group activities in Kira et al. (2009); Noor, Brown,
Taggart, Fernandez, and Coen (2010); Tam et al. (2007); and Wohl and Branscombe (2005). In
each case, the questions being asked are innovative and important. Yet, the measures assume that
groups can think, act, and feel in the same way as individuals do. In addition, the measures
assume that averaging scores from individual group members will represent the group. We
question both assumptions and contend that in these articles, group forgiveness is not actually
being assessed. The operationalization of forgiveness is essentially an extension of interpersonal
Examining Group Forgiveness 8
forgiveness. We believe clear distinctions between what groups, as opposed to individuals, can
and cannot do when they practice forgiveness is important for accurate measurement and study.
We see other psychological research, intended to assess group forgiveness, which actually
focuses on the individual. Oliner (2008) states that group forgiveness occurs when all members
of a group go through the forgiveness process. As is evident, the actual processes of forgiveness
here takes place within each individual, not on the group level itself. Ben-Porath (2005)
discussed group forgiveness in the context of a group leader’s (i.e. an individual’s) public
acknowledgement of wrong and desire for forgiveness. In this case, it is not the members of the
group seeking forgiveness, but the individual leader. As we can see, operationalizing the
philosophical construct of group forgiveness is a challenge.
Differentiating Forgiveness from Other Terms
To understand forgiveness at the individual and group levels accurately, we need to
differentiate forgiveness from other concepts. Enright et al. (1998) conceptualize forgiveness as a
moral virtue. The forgiving party sees the offending party’s humanity and responds with kindness
although the offender does not have a right to such benevolence. As a moral virtue, forgiveness
can be differentiated from reconciliation, justification, pardoning, and forgetting.
As discussed at length in the psychological literature (e.g. Enright, 2001; Worthington,
2005), forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation. Forgiveness is a moral act that begins within
one individual or one group and then moves toward a focus on the offender or offending group.
Reconciliation is not itself a virtue but instead is two or more people renewing trust and requires
both parties to be ready to resume the relationship. One party may forgive without reconciling;
the gift of forgiveness does not depend on the actions of the offending party. However, true
reconciliation requires some level of forgiveness (Mellor, Bretherton, & Firth, 2007).
Examining Group Forgiveness 9
Forgiveness and reconciliation are also distinct from co-existence. Kriesberg (1998) defined co-
existence as relationships in which parties are not trying to destroy one another. Co-existence
describes degrees of integration and equality in dispassionate terms whereas forgiveness and
reconciliation describe active attempts to develop positive feeling and restore relationships.
Forgiveness also differs from justification, pardoning, and forgetting (Enright &
Fitzgibbons, 2000). Justification involves acknowledging that an offender’s action was not
wrong and thus, forgiving would be inappropriate. Pardon is legal mercy by the state or
unofficial mercy that does not necessarily coexist with forgiveness. Moreover, Cehajic, Brown,
and Castano (2008) noted, some people equate forgiving with forgetting and may be reluctant to
forgive because they do not want to forget what has been done to them. When people forgive,
they become acutely aware of the injustice(s) they suffered. Forgiveness may not result in
forgetting, but may change how the past is remembered.
Some scholars have raised concerns regarding forgiveness as a moral virtue and
practicing forgiveness among groups of people. Luchies, Finkel, McNulty, and Kumashiro
(2010) argued that the effect of forgiveness on one’s self-respect and self-concept depends on
whether perpetrators made amends. Dixon, Tropp, Durrheim, and Tredoux (2010) stated that, in
some cases, having a good relationship with a perpetrator group may hinder social change and
subject a disadvantaged group to further injustice. Murphy (2003) noted that a reasonable degree
of vindictiveness is neither irrational nor immoral. Murphy argues that vindictive emotions might
be appropriate, and preferable to forgiveness, when responding to injustice.
While these scholars raise important critical points regarding forgiveness, we argue that a
person who forgives does not necessarily request amends from or reconciliation with the
offender (Enright, 2001). It appears that Dixon et al. (2010) also confused forgiveness with
Examining Group Forgiveness 10
condoning because a forgiving group clearly sees the injustice and does not allow the
perpetrators to continue the injustice (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2000). In response to Murphy’s
(2003) concerns, we want to emphasize that anger might beget anger and can hurt people across
generations, even if it starts as a small degree of retribution (Enright, 2001, 2012). It is important
to recall that forgiveness starts from acknowledging resentment (thus, admitting that it is neither
irrational nor immoral) and working through that to prevent hurting others via continuous desire
for retribution (Enright & Fitzgibbons 2000, 2015).
At both the interpersonal and group levels, justice and forgiveness are often seen as
opposing responses to wrongdoing. An individual or group that is wronged can seek justice by
punishing the offender for the injury. Hammorabi’s code, lex talionis (an eye for an eye), is a
classic example of justice; equal circumstances are created for the offending and injured parties.
An alternative to seeking justice is offering forgiveness. Forgiveness is a merciful response that
attempts to go beyond creating equal circumstances by viewing the offender with compassion
(Enright, 2012). In justice-based notions of forgiveness (Allais, 2008), the injured party forgoes
some aspect of punishment or retribution. Although justice and forgiveness may represent
different ways to respond to wrongdoing, they are not incompatible. For example, victims of
apartheid could come to forgive members of the National Party for the purpose of healing, while
also seeking restitution for years of oppression. Balancing justice and forgiveness may be
necessary for reconciliation and lasting peace (Sarkin, 2001; Villa-Vicencio, 1999). Victims may
need some degree of justice to be ready to forgive, but too much retributive justice may lead to
cycles of violence rather than peace and stability (McLernon et al., 2004; Villa-Vicencio, 1999).
The Meaning of Forgiveness Across Cultures
Examining Group Forgiveness 11
Given conflict is a cross-cultural issue, it is important to ask if people understand
forgiveness in a similar way across cultures. As a moral virtue, we reason there is a common core
to interpersonal forgiveness that transcends culture. There is evidence to support this assertion.
The Enright Forgiveness Inventory (EFI), a widely used measure of interpersonal forgiveness,
has been validated across cultures. Researchers reported the EFI has strong construct validity
across seven countries with diverse cultural norms, languages, religions, and geographic
locations: Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Israel, Korea, Taiwan, and the United States (Enright &
Fitzgibbons, 2000, 2015; Orathinkal, Vansteenwegen, Enright, & Stroobants, 2007; Rique, et al.,
1999). These studies indicate the items on the EFI represent the same meaning of forgiveness
across these cultures.
Although forgiveness may be understood in a similar way across cultures, researchers
have found cross-cultural differences in patterns of relationships between forgiveness,
personality characteristics, and orientations toward relationships. Fu, Watkins, and Hui (2004)
found forgiveness correlated with variables related to group solidarity such as preserving
harmony in the People’s Republic of China whereas forgiveness correlates with individualistic
personality characteristics and intrapersonal orientations in Western samples. Furthermore,
Kadiangandu, Gauché, Vinsonneau, and Mullet (2007) demonstrated that collectivist
(Congolese) and individualist (French) cultures emphasize different dimensions of forgiveness.
The motivations to begin the forgiveness process and the characteristics that lend themselves to
forgive may vary across cultures, however the meaning of forgiveness remains the same.
We have now defined interpersonal forgiveness and reviewed initial attempts to
conceptualize and operationalize group forgiveness. We have also explained how forgiveness
Examining Group Forgiveness 12
differs from other terms such as reconciliation. To be clearer about what group forgiveness is and
how it can be measured, we now turn to what groups can and cannot do when they forgive.
Group Capacities and Group Forgiveness
To properly analyze group forgiveness, we must start with basic questions about group
capacities. Can groups, as distinct from their individual members, forgive? Do groups have the
capacities to think, act, and feel? If so, what would group forgiveness look like? Resolving these
conceptual issues will improve the measurement and scientific study of group forgiveness.
Sociologists have defined a group as a collection of two or more individuals who share a
common social and collective identity (Smith, 1967). Smith (1967) emphasized that group
members need to interact to conduct shared tasks or achieve common goals. A shared identity
alone probably is not a sufficient condition to constitute a group. For example, if 300 young
women identify themselves strongly as softball players but never go to a softball field or form
into teams and leagues, then the notion of “softball group” would not actually form. Identity and
shared goals are necessary to have a group, but are they sufficient to claim groups can forgive?
Groups would still need to possess the moral-virtue characteristics that individuals have, such as
the motivation to do good and the cognitive abilities to understand and value forgiveness (see
Guyer & Wood, 1999; Rackham, 1926 for Aristotle’s and Kant’s discussions of moral virtue).
Traditional philosophical approaches to moral responsibility, such as Kant and Aristotle,
question the coherence of group forgiveness, and for that matter group blameworthiness. A full
description of the philosophy of collective responsibility can be found elsewhere (e.g. Govier,
2002). For our purposes here a summary will suffice. The argument states, groups do not have
minds, and therefore cannot have intentions. Without minds and intentions groups cannot be
responsible for unjust behavior, beyond that of the individual members of the group, that hurts
Examining Group Forgiveness 13
individuals outside of the group. From this perspective, groups do not have the same capacities
as individuals. For example, a company (a group) that pollutes a local river by dumping waste
into it cannot be held morally responsible. Instead only the individuals in the group who intended
to dispose of waste in the local river can be morally responsible. By extension, if groups, as
distinct from the individual members, cannot act morally, then they cannot forgive.
Philosophical Defense of Group Forgiveness
Some authors argue that groups, as distinct from their individual members, can have
moral agency and therefore group forgiveness is a coherent construct (Govier, 2002). From this
perspective, some groups have decision-making procedures that provide the two required
components of moral responsibility. First, some groups have a moral agent, a governing body
that is charged with making decisions for the group. The governing body, such as an executive
committee, considers options, deliberates, and makes decisions for the group. Second, groups
that have mechanisms for acting on group decisions can work to pursue interests or needs in
ways individuals alone could not. In these cases, the group decisions lead to rational purposeful
action. If groups can be said to act morally, then group wrongdoing and forgiveness are possible.
Govier (2002) put forth three conditions that must be met for groups to be subjects and
objects of forgiveness: “1) groups can be agents responsible for wrongdoing, 2) groups can suffer
wrongful harm, and 3) groups can have and can amend feelings, attitudes, and beliefs about
various matters including harms they have suffered at the hands of others” (p. 87).
To satisfy the first proposition, Govier argued that groups are capable of doing things that
individuals are not able to do. For example, she wrote that nations and governments can develop
and implement a large, and officially approved, campaign such as a war which could not be done
by individuals. She further argued that these group actions are the result of human deliberation,
Examining Group Forgiveness 14
intention, and desire, each of which are needed for responsibility. To defend the second
proposition, she argued that individuals can be harmed because of their membership in a
particular group. For example, group membership might result in an individual experiencing
discrimination. In addition to individuals suffering negative treatment due to group membership,
Govier noted groups can be harmed collectively and provided examples of property or cultural
resources being damaged or destroyed. In support of the third proposition, Govier noted that
beliefs, attitudes, and feelings underlie group deliberation and decision-making processes. She
provided an example of a group boycotting products made from a country that was believed to
use child labor. The feeling that child labor is bad and children need protection can be attributed
to the group and would guide the group’s use of its procedures for deliberating and making
decisions. She indicated the beliefs, attitudes, and feelings can be attributed to the group
collectively or the group members distributively. She contended that if negative emotions such as
hatred can describe groups, then positive emotions, such as compassion and forgiveness can too.
While Govier’s (2002) analysis shows a consistency between interpersonal and group
psychology with regard to forgiveness, her description of group forgiveness is also qualitatively
different than interpersonal forgiveness. For example, forgiveness between individuals does not
require formal decision-making procedures. One individual consciously, or unconsciously,
deliberates about how to respond to a transgressor, makes a decision, and acts. Group forgiveness
requires a collection of individuals to not only have a process by which they can deliberate and
decide, but also have a process or structure for collective action. Another qualitative difference
involves the psychology of emotion. In interpersonal forgiveness an individual experiences his or
her own emotions. Group forgiveness involves group members feeling emotions when a group
identity is made relevant by group level outcomes even when those outcomes do not affect them
Examining Group Forgiveness 15
personally (Leonard, Mackie, & Smith, 2011). Individual group members may not identify with
the group to the same degree and may experience differences in the type and intensity of
emotions felt. For example, a group member with a loose affiliation and weak group identity
might not experience as much anger for a transgression as a group member who has a strong
identity affiliation to the group. The psychology of emotions at the individual level does not
seem to translate exactly to the group level.
Bright and Exline (2012) articulated four levels of forgiveness (intrapersonal,
interpersonal, organization, and group) and posited forgiveness often occurs at several levels.
They discussed qualitative differences between forgiveness at each level. One of the important
distinctions is that the intra-individual level of forgiveness is an emotional and cognitive process
arising within a person dealing with injustices, while the other three levels of forgiveness,
including group forgiveness, deal with the behavioral side of forgiveness. Bright and Exline
stated that this behavioral side of group forgiveness has the purpose of stopping the offense, of
realizing that the perpetrator’s offense has ceased, and of withholding retaliatory actions.
Drawing from Govier’s (2002) and Bright and Exline’s (2012) descriptions, individual
cognition, behavior, and affect are not exactly the same as group cognition, behavior, and affect
in relation to forgiveness. We agree with Govier and Bright and Exline that groups can forgive.
However, we want to emphasize that groups do not possess the same psychological capacities as
individuals do as they forgive. Group forgiveness is of a different quality than interpersonal
forgiveness and this has implications for scientific measurement and investigation. We believe
that researchers studying forgiveness need to be careful of equivocation; terms used to describe
interpersonal forgiveness can be confused when applied to group forgiveness.
Examining Group Forgiveness 16
Although scholars have braved the difficult task of conceptualizing group forgiveness, we
take this opportunity to develop a definition which is based on the commonalities of definitions
we found from our literature search and can be operationalized according to group capacities. We
define group forgiveness as “acknowledging that a group has been unfairly wronged from
another group, the wronged group collectively forgoes retribution and promotes forgiveness in its
members by responding to the offending group with positive behaviors.” As the literature claims,
groups play a powerful role in both inspiring and providing a context to promote forgiveness. In
the next section, by analyzing what groups can do, we hope to clarify the role groups have in
Operationalizing Group Forgiveness
As we have noted, philosophical and psychological debates exist regarding group
capacities. A foundational question for operationalizing group forgiveness is, what is it that
groups can and cannot do to forgive?
Creating Group Norms and Shared Values that Foster Forgiveness. Groups are capable of
particular behaviors, one of which is, the moral imperative to action (Govier, 2002). This moral
imperative can take at least two forms. The first is what we might call the motivational behavior
of valuing. A group can be motivated to communicate positive values to its own members and to
other groups (e.g., “We value peace; we value cooperation.”). The second is what we might call
the establishment of group norms for what is and is not acceptable regarding moral issues. For
instance, groups might support or oppose euthanasia, child labor practices, or retaliation
following a transgression. Groups may play an important role in the forgiveness process by
creating norms that support forgiveness. For example, in communities where forgiveness is
valued and is a normative response to injustice, one would expect forgiveness to be a likely
Examining Group Forgiveness 17
response to injury. A real-world exemplar of this logic can be seen in the Amish response to the
killing of Amish school children in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. In response to the tragedy, the
community used its decision making processes and structures for collective action to express its
forgiveness of the offender, and demonstrate its forgiveness through frequent visits to the
offender’s family (Kraybill, Nolt, & Weaver-Zercher, 2007).
Proclamations, Promises, and Gestures of Good Will. Just as groups can act by
expressing values and by establishing norms, they can also make proclamations that support
forgiveness. Groups can use language to proclaim forgiveness to other groups (Neto et al., 2007)
or to proclaim an apology (Ferguson et al., 2007). Leonard et al. (2011) showed apology can
affect group emotions and ultimately group forgiveness. An example of a proclamation of
apology is F. W. de Klerk’s apology for apartheid in 1996 before the Truth and Reconciliation
Commission. Other kinds of proclamations can include cooperation (e.g., “We as a group do our
best to lessen conflict with other groups.”), encouragement (e.g., “We must do our best to secure
a lasting peace.”), and refraining from disparaging other groups. Proclamations in the form of
forgiveness are ways to encourage prosocial behavior that might lead to reconciliation among
groups (Cehajic et al., 2008; Wohl & Branscombe, 2005). Groups can also use language to make
promises for the future (Oliner, 2008). This can include promises for forgiveness (e.g., “We will
work to foster forgiveness within the individuals of our group”). Proclamations and promises can
be ascribed to the group rather than to individuals if the group used its decision making processes
to decide how to make the expressions and what the content of the expressions should be.
Furthermore, gestures of good will, motivations toward beneficence, can be shown
through language and behavior. Hewstone et al. (2004), for example, discussed how church
leaders in Northern Ireland facilitated the promotion of forgiveness in their own groups. Cehajic
Examining Group Forgiveness 18
et al. (2008) described the behavior of Bosnians as a group in establishing positive relationships
with Serbs. Neto et al. (2007) pointed to the group support of forgiveness by the Truth and
Reconciliation Commission. Other examples include being diplomatically friendly toward the
out-group (Enright, Knutson Enright, & Holter, 2010), and showing collective satisfaction with
the other group by being patient and even generous. Reparations are one example of such
generosity (Ben-Porath, 2005; Wohl & Branscombe, 2005). Conversely, deliberate decisions and
actions to punish do not show good will (Hewstone et al., 2004; Wohl & Branscombe, 2005). By
making explicit proclamations and promises of forgiveness, and making gestures of good will
group identification and requisites for membership are made clear. The implications for peace
between groups would seem to be greater when these qualities are explicitly pointed toward
peace and forgiveness with contentious groups.
Establishing Structures for Group Behaviors that Promote Forgiveness. Behaviors that
promote forgiveness can become consistent across time if certain social structures are put into
place. Using Rwanda as an example, Sarkin (2001) argued that truth commissions can be
particularly important structures for promoting human rights and positive relations between
groups. An important caveat is truth and reconciliation commissions need to have clear
intergroup conceptualizations of forgiveness or they will default to a focus on relationships
between individual victims and perpetrators (Chapman, 2007). Fambul Tok (“Family Talk”) is
another example of a structure that can establish positive group behavior. Fambul Tok is a
program originating in Sierra Leone that provides perpetrators and victims with a way to heal via
face-to-face activities. Opportunities for consistent intergroup communication stimulate the
development of group norms that can support positive relationships (Hewstone et al., 2004).
Groups can take intentional action to create social structures to foster forgiveness and peace.
Examining Group Forgiveness 19
Groups differ from individuals by the magnitude and duration of their respective actions.
Whereas a group acts in a collective manner, an individual is only capable of acting on his or her
own. The commonness of the goal and the effect of many individuals acting in concert enhance
the magnitude of group action beyond that of the individual, affording groups very large
influence. These actions, once institutionalized, can continue long after any one individual’s life
span, thus having a considerably longer and greater effect.
Group Emotions. We acknowledge group emotions, particularly moral emotions,
influence group relations (Giner-Sorolla, 2012). Members of a group can experience emotions
that are shared among the group members when identification with the group depersonalizes the
individuals and the individuals’ self-concepts become interchangeable with the group (Leonard et
al., 2011). We argue group emotions are important in group relations. However group emotions
are assessed based on individual group members’ responses. We do not think that aggregating
individual emotional responses truly measure group emotions. Therefore, when operationalizing
group forgiveness for the purpose of measurement, we conclude that emotions should not be
included in the assessment. Instead, behaviors associated with forgiving emotions, such as
gestures of good will, should be assessed.
In sum, groups can exhibit such behaviors as establishing norms and long-term social
structures to foster forgiveness and peace. Similar to individuals, groups can behaviorally
demonstrate motivation by valuing, and they can proclaim, promise, and show gestures of
goodwill. We elaborated on what groups can do to forgive in order to identify the dimensions of
group forgiveness that can be quantitatively measured. We believe our definition of group
forgiveness, which is behaviorally based, is well suited to operationalizing the establishment of
norms, the delivery of proclamations, and the creation of social structures.
Examining Group Forgiveness 20
Discussion and Future Research
Forgiveness between groups has implications for peace. Much of the conceptual and
empirical work on interpersonal forgiveness has been extended to group forgiveness. However,
individual and group capacities differ and therefore the conceptualization of interpersonal
forgiveness may not translate well to the group level. We examined the philosophical groundings
of group forgiveness and put forth our own definition of the construct. We also identified
concrete observable behaviors that groups can perform to forgive. Our hope is to operationalize
group forgiveness in a way that does not conflate individual and group capacities and is specific
enough for scientific study. Our definition is a starting point that we hope will build on the
important and pioneering work of others. We believe the psychological components comprising
group forgiveness include valuing, developing norms, making proclamations and gestures of
good will, and establishing social structures that promote forgiveness.
We suggest three areas of inquiry for researchers interested in group forgiveness. First,
we think the development of a reliable and valid measure of group forgiveness is essential to
studying this construct scientifically. Group forgiveness is not a simple extension of interpersonal
forgiveness and should not be measured as such. When testing the reliability of a measure,
researchers should consider their samples very carefully. Group identifiers may have multiple
meanings that could affect how individuals within that group interpret transgressions and the
possibility of group forgiveness. For example, being Muslim might be primarily a cultural
identity for some people and primarily a religious identity for others. There may be systematic
sources of variation in the way people think about transgressions their groups suffered depending
on the way in which they identify with a group. Researchers need to consider this when assessing
the psychometric properties of a measure.
Examining Group Forgiveness 21
Second, assuming a reliable and valid measure of group forgiveness can be created, we
think it is important to use the measure to study conflicts that could erupt in order to identify
places for intervention. For example, would societies which have experienced repeated conflicts
in the past be less likely to perpetrate violence if that society’s average group forgiveness score is
high and the overall standard deviation of that score is low (indicating consensus across group
units)? In other words, the society values forgiveness and puts it into practice. Similarly, would
those societies with a record of past conflict that present with low mean group forgiveness scores
and again a low standard deviation of that score be more likely to erupt in violence in the future?
The United Nations’ Rosenblum-Kumar (2008) has observed that almost 50% of countries
coming out of violent conflict will revert back into conflict within 10 years. A measure of group
forgiveness may be a way to screen groups that are prone to start the cycle of violence again.
Those groups with low average group forgiveness scores may be candidates for forgiveness
education interventions in schools, homes, places of worship, and work places to prevent cyclical
violence (see Enright et al., 2007). To our knowledge, this question has never been asked and
there are no previous data from which this question can be grounded. However, we deem this to
be a very important time to ask this question.
A related question concerns the kind of violence perpetrated. There is a difference
between a few individuals acting alone, apart from the group, and a concerted violent effort
coming from the group. Might those groups that score low on group forgiveness and have a large
standard deviation (indicating no consensus) produce a situation in which an isolated few
perpetrate violence? And, might those groups that score low on the scale and have a small
standard deviation be more prone to overall group aggression? The nature of the group conflict
might help groups understand when forgiveness is a possibility and when it would be unsafe.
Examining Group Forgiveness 22
It is germane to note that group leaders are influential in groups’ violent or forgiving
behavior. As an example, Hewstone et al. (2004) argued that contrary to church leaders, few
political leaders in Northern Ireland openly express the need to forgive (but rather encourage
reconciliation without mentioning forgiveness) between Catholics and Protestants because the
politicians do not want to intrude on individuals’ religious attitudes or sorrow over violence.
Furthermore, Ben-Porath (2005) asserted that politicians and leaders should publicly present
group forgiveness, including educating people about forgiveness and peace. We recommend that
group leaders take the initiative in receiving forgiveness education and be the role models for
their members and promote their groups’ forgiving behavior. Equally important is, as Zembylas
and Micahelidou (2011) discussed, the possibility of Greek-Cypriot teachers developing
curricula regarding forgiveness and peace toward ethnically divided Turkish Cypriots. Teachers
can be smaller-scale leaders who educate children about forgiveness and peace.
Third, research can explore if, and how, group forgiveness affects the psychology of
individuals in groups and dynamics within and between groups. Does group level forgiveness
have an effect on individual group members’ psychological well-being in ways that are similar to
interpersonal forgiveness? Does group level forgiveness improve intra-group functioning? Does
group level forgiveness promote peace between groups? These are all important questions.
Social scientists recognize that group forgiveness has the potential to end cycles of
conflict and violence. We have attempted to clarify group forgiveness as a construct so that it can
be operationalized and measured without conflating individual and group capacities. We also
identified a few areas of research that would help social scientists across disciplines better
understand group conflict and places to intervene.
Examining Group Forgiveness 23
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Table 1 Conceptualizing Group Forgiveness Using Four Definitional Categories
Examining Group Forgiveness 32
forgiveness Example (stated in text)
Tam et al.
Cehajic et al.
Wohl et al.
Tam et al.
Hanke et al.
“At the inter-group level, forgiveness precludes harboring
negative feelings toward the perpetrator category as a
whole ... By forgiving the perpetrator category, the negative
feelings associated with a category of people (e.g., Germans
as a whole) should be lessened” (p. 290).
“The extension of interpersonal forgiveness to the actions of
groups is based on the assumption that groups and
communities can also commit moral offenses, and these too
result in anger, distrust, and broken relationship” (p. 4).
“On the intergroup level, forgiveness involves the release of
negative feelings toward the perpetrator’s group and
prosocial behaviors toward that group” (p. 120).
“Consistent with such a conceptualization, intergroup
forgiveness involves a reduction of feelings of revenge,
anger, and mistrust towards the perpetrator group and
intentions to understand, approach, and engage with its
members” (p. 352).
“Although much of the theoretical and empirical work on
empathy and forgiveness has been conducted in the context
of interpersonal transgressions, it seems reasonable to argue
that empathy might also be of relevance at the intergroup
level” (p. 308-309).
Definition of interpersonal forgiveness: “Forgiveness is
considered an emotional process that involves ceasing to feel
angry or resentful over the transgression” (p. 307).
“…intergroup forgiveness can be described as a dynamic
process between the victimized and perpetrating party that
involves negotiation and understanding... it involves
psychological closure for both parties (e.g. a form of ‘social
healing’), in which a symbolic departure from the past is
reached” (p. 2).
Table 1 (continued)
Examining Group Forgiveness 33
forgiveness Example (stated in text)
Neto et al.
Noor, Brown, &
Mullet et al.,
Forgiveness—defined as decreased motivation to retaliate
against or avoid the offender and increased motivation to
reconcile with the offender despite harmful acts —has
recently become the focus of research that explores ways of
ameliorating hostile inter-group relationships” (p. 361).
“An education in peace through forgiveness will require
more than simply providing both sides with historical
accounts from the perspective of the other. It will also need
to give members of all groups the skills necessary to
reciprocally transfigure their respective narratives” (p. 97-
Mellor writes that it is obscure, and needs to be explored (p.
“This conception of forgiveness as a strictly interpersonal
process does not take into account the fact that … many, if
not most, major injuries in social life are collective ones ...
[and] the proper cure for them can be undertaken only at a
community level” (p. 712).
“We define intergroup forgiveness as a process that involves
making a decision to learn new aspects about oneself and
one’s group (one’s emotions, thoughts, and capability to
inflict harm on others), and to try to explore the world as
perceived by the out-group both with the intention of finding
adequate closure about the past and developing a vision for
the future in which the groups’ mutual concerns may be
reconciled.”... “one of the implications from the above
understanding of group forgiveness as a conscious
process...” (p. 101).
“This representation of forgiveness as a strictly interpersonal
process, however, does not take into account the fact that, as
was suggested in the many, if not most major injuries in
social life are collective” (p. 199).
Table 1 (continued)
Examining Group Forgiveness 34
forgiveness Example (stated in text)
Hewstone et al.
Ferguson et al.
Kira et al.
González et al.
“People behave differently in intergroup settings than they
do in interpersonal settings because of a shift from personal
to social identity” (2008, p. 207).
“Intergroup forgiveness is best thought of as a sociopolitical
rather than a religious construct, that it is best understood
when examined in interpersonal or social contexts” (p. 94).
“This study indicates that forgiveness and guilt can be
translated into intergroup terms through social identification”
Posits that groups can inspire and provide a context to
promote the process of forgiveness that occurs at the group
level (p. 180-183).
“Tools to measure forgiveness at an interpersonal level
should be adjusted to account for involvement of multiple
actors” (p. 390).
“According to social identity theory (Tajfel & Turner, 1986),
intergroup settings involve a shift from personal to social
identity” (p. 271).
“If forgiveness is difficult to achieve at the interpersonal
level, imagine how hard it is to achieve between groups. In
fact, some authors . . . have questioned whether group
forgiveness is even possible” (p. 42).
“Although our understanding of intergroup forgiveness may
be usefully informed by the interpersonal forgiveness
literature, there may be qualitative differences between
forgiveness at the two levels….Indeed, when talking about
intergroup forgiveness we are not necessarily dealing with
direct exchanges between victims and offenders but with
people who identify with groups with different roles in the
conflict and who experience emotions such as forgiveness as
members of their groups….” (p. 223)
Table 1 (continued)
Examining Group Forgiveness 35
forgiveness Example (stated in text)
“According to self‐categorization theory, people categorize
themselves at three levels of increasing inclusiveness:
personal, social, and human. When individuals shift from
categorizing at the social level to a more inclusive
superordinate categorization, previous outgroup members are
accepted as part of the shared ingroup, and thus elicit more
positive evaluations” (p. 569).
“Forgiveness at the personal/private level is the process that
takes place within an individual and between two people;
sociopolitical forgiveness, on the other hand, operates among
and between social groups and takes place in the domain of a
conflicting inter-group relationship. Collective
forgiveness essentially implies a social and political
transformation in which cultures of revenge and resentment
gradually give way to increased trust… At the level of
individual forgiveness, only the victim can exercise
forgiveness, while at the level of public forgiveness complex
questions such as these are raised: Who can forgive the Other
group? Who can engage in sociopolitical forgiveness? On
behalf of whom and under what circumstances?” (p. 252).
“First, interpersonal forgiveness is generally a private affair
between individuals. Intergroup forgiveness, on the other
hand, is often the subject of intense public scrutiny, and calls
for intergroup forgiveness are frequently made with strong
political undertone…” (p. 446).