THE BLOG
04/26/2013 08:20 am ET | Updated Jun 26, 2013

On Grudges and Forgiveness

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Written By Jayanth Narayanan, PhD

One of the most difficult things to do when we feel wronged upon is to forgive those who have inflicted harm on us. Great leaders are able to channel such anger to bring about social change. In fact the very reason why some leaders are thought of to be great is because of their capacity to forgive. The interdependence in organizations creates the potential for people to knowingly or unknowingly betray each other's trust leading to feelings of vengeance and forgiveness. It is also this interdepence that creates the possibility for care and compassion in how we relate to one another. In our research, we sought to examine whether there is indeed a benefit when leaders respond with compassion. We also sought to examine whether there maybe costs to holding onto grudges.

We examined the consequences of recalling grudges. In a study we did at the National University of Singapore, we asked half our participants to recall an incident in their lives where they had been transgressed upon and they had still not forgiven the perpetrator. We asked the other half of our participants to recall an incident where they had been transgressed upon and they had chosen to forgive the perpetrator -- a very emotional exercise for our participants. Nevertheless, there were no differences in the severity of the incidents people recalled in the two conditions. Following this procedure, we got people to perform various tasks to see if this mere recollection affects people in anyway.

In one study, we asked people to estimate how steep the angle of different slopes were in photographs. People who had recollected incidents where they had not forgiven estimated these hills to be steeper. There is research that shows that our estimation of slopes are not independent of how burdensome we feel. For example, when wearing heavy backpacks people estimate the angle of a hill to be steeper. Much like the backpack, people seemed to be wearing an emotional backpack of not forgiving their perpetrators, which made them see hills as being steeper. We were surprised by these results and sought to replicate this will real slopes on campus. We found the exact same pattern of results for real hills. It seems like the world appeared more daunting to our participants who had recalled an incident where they had not forgiven their perpetrator.

We wanted to then examine whether this would translate into other domains where physical energy was required. We used the same procedure and asked people to recall incidents where they had either forgiven or not forgiven their perpetrator. Following this procedure, we asked people to jump five times as high as possible on a yoga mat. We then measured how high they humped on average over five trials. Accounting for levels of physical fitness, participants who had recalled incidents where they had not forgiven their perpetrator jumped significantly lower than participants who had recalled incidents of forgiveness. This lends further credence to the idea that not forgiving can literally be physically draining.

These studies show us the cost of not forgiving others can be physically taxing on us. We then sought to examine the role of social power on forgiveness. We hear stories of great leaders who forgave their perpetrators. Nelson Mandela's forgiveness was vividly portrayed by Morgan Freeman in the film Invictus. Gandhi had forgiven the perpetrators of violence against him very early in his political career in South Africa. While there are instances of forgiveness by such great leaders, there is evidence in the social psychological literature that shows that power makes people seek revenge. This is somewhat of a paradox. Does the greatness of leaders such as Gandhi and Mandela lie in them subjugating their primal instinct to inflict revenge? More importantly, does it really transform the perpetrator when such leaders forgive rather than seek revenge?

Along with my my graduate student, Zheng Xue who is now at Rotterdam School of Management, we examined this question. We find that acts of forgivness by the powerful are indeed perceived as being more authentic. Following such acts, the perpetrators are more likely to comply with requests made by the victim -- a sign that they are on the road to be transformed. This result shows that while revenge may seem like a way to assert power, true transformation in the perpetrator occurs when leaders with power can harm, but they choose not to. As Rosabeth Moss Kanter writes in a recent blog post "Great leaders know when to forgive."

All religions extol the virtue of forgiveness. The Jains in India even have a day in the year where they seek forgiveness. On this day, members of the Jain community approach everyone they interact with and seek forgiveness from them if they have knowingly or unknowingly harmed them. From a communal standpoint, this seems like a very beneficial practice and it brings to the surface the grudges we may hold against others. By forgiving others who have wronged us, we may find the peace in our hearts and precisely when we have the power to harm others, such acts of forgiveness may transform our perpetrators.

A recent piece that appeared on Slate, takes an alternate stance to the research I have presented here. The author, Doonan views holding onto grudges as a way to restore a sense of well-being after being the victim of heinous crime. Holding onto grudges can indeed by empowering. The caveat of our work is that we looked at actions that were not as heinous as rape or murder. The recent incidents of anger against perpetrators of the gang rape in India have indeed sparked a social revolution that hopefully will bring positive changes in the country. But the celebratory messages that were sometimes exchanged on social media when one of the six culprits committed suicide in Delhi left me disturbed. The hatred that causes such a celebration is deeply disturbing. Forgiveness does not mean condoning such crimes. If holding onto a grudge energizes and generates social action to restore justice, such grudges may indeed be functional. To paraphrase Kanter, it seems like -- Great leaders know just how to do this.

Come join international experts on compassion and business presenting at one of the first large-scales conferences on compassion and business at Stanford University on April 30, 2013: The Compassion and Business Conference organized by Stanford University's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. We hope to see you there!

For more by Project Compassion Stanford, click here.

For more on emotional wellness, click here.