Why do some people find it easier than others to forget the hurts that life inevitably throws their way? The results of a recent study suggest that when people forgive, they are more likely to forget. In fact, forgiveness may help people forget by helping them suppress details of their pain. “Learning to forgive others can have positive benefits for an individual’s physical and mental health,” said Saima Noreen, lead author of the study.

In all likelihood, whether you are of a religious nature or prefer New Age philosophies, you understand forgiveness as fundamental to maintaining relationships, avoiding conflict, and generally moving forward in life. For the current study, researchers from the School of Psychology and Neuroscience at University of St. Andrews in Scotland decided to investigate this time-honored quality of forgiveness. In particular, they explored the presumed relationship between forgiveness and forgetting.

Memory and Mercy

The researchers began their study by enrolling 30 participants. The researchers asked each to read 40 scenarios that contained hypothetical wrongdoings, including infidelity, slander, and theft. Next, the participants evaluated each transgression and answered this question for each: If you were the victim, would you forgive the misdeed? After completing these tasks, the participants left the lab and returned to their homes.

One to two weeks later, the participants returned and read a subset of the scenarios again. However, this time around, each scenario was paired with a neutral cue word and after learning the scenario-cue pairings, the participants were presented with some of the cue words, written in either red or green. When the cue word appeared as green, participants were instructed to recall the related scenario; but when the cue word appeared as red, they were told to avoid thinking about the scenario. This standard think/no-think procedure was used by the researchers because they wanted to test whether forgiveness might affect the forgetting process. The procedure essentially trains people to forget specific information or details, and is often used in memory research.

What did the researchers discover? For transgressions forgiven during the first session, participants showed even more forgetting when they had been instructed to forget the scenario in the second session. By comparison, participants showed no forgetting for scenarios they had not forgiven in the first session, even when they had been told to forget them.

These findings suggest that once a transgression has been forgiven, it may be psychologically easier to forget. Yet, the results also can be viewed from the perspective of cognitive science. Overcoming strong negative emotions toward someone who did us wrong and resisting the impulse for vengeance are two traits considered to be functions of executive control. Past studies suggest that executive control is also involved in the ability to forget. It might be this cognitive mechanism, then, that links forgiveness and forgetting.

“It’s likely that the relationship between forgiveness and forgetting is bi-directional and far more complex over longer periods of time,” Noreen stated in a press release. “We hope that, in time, new fields of enquiry may combine forgetting- and forgiveness-based interventions that might, in turn, give rise to powerful therapeutic tools that will enable people to “forgive and forget” more effectively.”

How much of our wisdom is contained in our memories? Seems to me most of us would not want to forget (or be capable of forgetting) every hurt suffered. What exactly would happen if we took a drug, say, that helped us completely forgive and forget — would we doom ourselves to endlessly repeating some known victimization at the hands of the same people?

Source: Noreen S, Bierman RN, MacLeod MD. Forgiving You Is Hard, but Forgetting Seems Easy: Can Forgiveness Facilitate Forgetting? Psychological Science. 2014.