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Personality Traits and Forgiveness

June 16, 2014

In the first post on forgiveness, I offered a few psychological definitions of interpersonal forgiveness in terms of changing motivation, transforming emotions, letting go, and cancelling debts. While these understandings of forgiveness vary and are not unanimously accepted, they remain helpful working definitions. To proceed further, however, it’s helpful not only to understand forgiveness as a process, but also to identify the conditions that are conducive to it. This is somewhat reminiscent of the way the fathers look for the mothers of a passion or of a virtue in order to help Christians walk in holiness.

As we explore the notion of forgiveness and how it relates to our own experience, an important question to ask is why some people let go of the need to retaliate more quickly, while others turn very slowly towards reconciliation. Why do some people hold onto an offense, while others let it go and move on? Why can some people readily express forgiveness even in the most trying of circumstances when others seem to be unable to forgive for the slightest offense?

Riek and Mania, in their article entitled, “The Antecedents and Consequences of Interpersonal Forgiveness: A Meta-Analytic Review,” have postulated that there are antecedents or pre-existing conditions before an offense takes place that make one more, or alternatively less, disposed to forgive others. The authors organize these antecedents by grouping them into personal influences, relationship-specific influences, offense-specific influences, and social-cognitive influences. For the purposes of this post, I will examine the personal influences. In the next few posts, I will review the remaining influences.

According to Reik and Mania’s analysis, personality plays a background role in disposing one to forgive regardless of the particular situation or the nature of the offense. They write, “The least proximal category of antecedents includes personality and individual difference factors, which are likely to be those that predispose a forgiving attitude. These will not be situational or offense-specific factors of an incident; rather, they will be somewhat constant within an individual. The next least proximal category includes factors involving the victim’s relationship with the offender.”

Riek and Mania note that studies have shown that individual personality plays a role in determining one’s disposition to forgive another. They conclude that the more generally agreeable personality will be more disposed to forgive than the more neurotic personality. In other words, someone who is soft-hearted, trusting, generous, acquiescent, lenient and good natured will be more likely to forgive than someone who is worrying, temperamental, self-pitying, self-conscious, emotional, and vulnerable.

“As McCullough and colleagues (1998) postulate, agreeableness and neuroticism may impact forgiveness by shaping the way a person interprets events and relationships. For example, someone high in agreeableness may be more willing to overlook certain offenses, while the negative emotions and views of someone high in neuroticism makes forgiveness more difficult. . . Other personality variables that have been explored are narcissistic entitlement, trait anger, attachment, empathy, and the cognitive need for structure. When people are high in narcissistic entitlement, they tend to be less forgiving (Strelan, 2007a). From a theoretical perspective, as the focus of narcissists tends to be themselves rather than relationships, a relationship repair device such as forgiveness is likely undeveloped. In addition, those high in narcissistic entitlement tend to be less supportive of unconditional forgiveness (Exline et al., 2004). Similarly, those high in trait anger are less likely to forgive transgressions (Berry et al., 2005; Exline, Yali, & Lobel, 1999) and those who are high in a need for structure tend to be less forgiving (Eaton, Struthers, & Santelli, 2006).”

Fortunately, among the five major traits of personality, researchers have found that agreeableness and neuroticism can and often do change as one ages. And there is no better way to affect that good change than to follow the very commandments of Christ, which encourage us to trust Him, to scorn self-pity, to have compassion on others, and to be flexible. Above all, we need to fight against philautia, that sickly love of self, which in the words of Saint John Chrysostom, is a great hindrance “to our perceiving what is just. Because of this (philautia), when we are judging others, we search out all things with strictness, but when we are sitting in judgment on ourselves, we are blinded” (Homily 36 on Matthew). If we desire to become more forgiving, according to the fathers, we need to become less self-centered and more Christ-centered. Then, we will see clearly enough, love fervently enough, and trust boldly enough to forgive.

 

 

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