A series of online experiments by a group of British scientists found that high levels of forgiveness lead to lower levels of paranoia after a personal transgression. In other words, people who forgive easily are less likely to start believing that others are out to harm them after they were mistreated. The study was published in the Journal of Personality.
Paranoia is a personality trait that makes us prone to believe that others are trying to harm as. At its heart is the belief that another person or group are intentionally trying to cause us harm. Some see this as a response to and a way of making sense of negative, unpleasant experiences with others.
However, previous studies have identified a range of emotional responses to mistreatment and transgression by others such as anger, low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, but rarely paranoia. Early researchers of human behavior considered paranoia a psychiatric symptom, but later studies revealed that it represents a continuum, a trait present in all people to a greater or a lesser degree.
Forgiveness, on the other hand, is also a personality trait that, like paranoia, involves interactions with other groups or individuals and also represents ways in which an individual might respond to mistreatment. Studies have linked it to various positive outcomes for individual well-being. But does it affect paranoia?
To study the effects of forgiveness on paranoia, Lyn Ellet and her colleagues devised a series of three studies that they carried out on samples of undergraduate students at a UK university. The first experiment aimed to test whether suffering personal transgression increases paranoia at that particular moment (so-called, state paranoia, as opposed to paranoia as a lasting trait). They divided the students randomly into two groups, one meant to suffer a personal transgression and the other that would not.
The experiment was based on the Prisoner’s Dilemma Game concept. In this online experiment participants were made to believe that they are playing a game with another player in which they could decide to cooperate or compete with that player. At the start of the game, the first group would “receive a message from the other player” suggesting that they should both cooperate.
After that, experimenters would show to the study participant that “the other player” chose competition, even though he/she suggested to participant that they should cooperate. Such behavior of the (fictitious) other player represented a transgression. The other group went through the game without such a transgression. After the game, the first group scored higher on the state paranoia assessment (State Paranoia Scale).
The second study was carried out in three phases. In the first phase, participants completed an assessment of forgiveness (the Heartland Forgiveness Scale, HFS). Three days later and then a week later, they were asked to recall a pleasant and a difficult situation from the previous week and to rate their state paranoia about those situations. The results showed that higher levels of forgiveness were associated with lower levels of paranoia and this was particularly pronounced for state paranoia about difficult events.
The goal of the third experiment was to explore whether the relationship between forgiveness and paranoia is a cause-and-effect one or not. The expectation of the researchers was that if they induced forgiveness experimentally, this would produce a reduction in paranoia. To do that, they asked a group of 102 student to complete a questionnaire that they labelled “University of London Scale” and for which they told students that it measures forgiveness.
They then randomly divided students into two groups. Students in the first group were told that their forgiveness scores were high and students in the other group were told that their forgiveness scores were low. Participants were then asked to explain their score. This was done to strengthen the manipulation, make the students more convinced in the validity of their (made-up scores) and to assess their forgiveness at the very moment.
Participants were then asked to complete an assessment of paranoia (Paranoia scale, PS). Results showed that participants who were made to believe they are forgiving had lower values on paranoia in this experiment, than participants who were told they were not forgiving. Researchers conclude that their expectation that forgiveness reduces paranoia is confirmed.
While the study highlighted an important relationship between paranoia and forgiveness, authors note that their sample consisted solely of undergraduate students and this limits the generalizability of these results. Additionally, most of the participants were female, white and British. The study also relied solely on self-reports and it is unknown whether using another assessment method would produce different results.
The study “Dispositional Forgiveness Buffers Paranoia Following Interpersonal Transgression” was authored by Lyn Ellet, Anna Foxall, Tim Wildschut and Paul Chadwick.