Date of Award

8-2003

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Major

Psychology

Major Professor

Robert G. Wahler

Committee Members

Kristina Coop-Gordon, Schuyler Huck, Deborah Welsh

Abstract

As evidence suggesting both emotional and physical benefits from forgiveness continues to mount, scientific interest focuses on the intra-psychic dynamics and interpersonal processes that distinguish forgiving individuals from their non-forgiving counterparts. By studying the transformation of hurt and resentment into understanding and compassion, researchers hope to clarify further the cognitive and affective changes that characterize forgiving hearts and minds. As the nuances of this potentially healthful expansion of perspective become known, clinicians hope to integrate their newfound insights into therapeutic formulations and interventions that target ever-widening populations for whom forgiveness might prove beneficial.

Analysis of the very personal and often lengthy process of forgiveness requires attention to habitual tendencies and situational reactions, general beliefs and specific attitudes. Personal narratives, as reflections of individuals' patterns for integrating their immediate experiences into the stories of their lives, serve as natural maps of the inner workings of forgiveness. Thus, by studying these narrative maps, it may be possible to gain a better understanding of the process. of forgiveness and its effect on physical health, while exploring the ways that individuals of all ages story the events of their daily lives into healthy, adaptive identities.

One hundred eight undergraduate students completed self-report measures of state and trait forgiveness and told stories of betrayal experiences while physiological measurements of heart rate and blood pressure were recorded. Their unscaffolded and scaffolded narratives were coded for coherence, richness, conflict formulation , and story-based forgiveness. Four questions were addressed: (1) What is the effect of interviewer scaffolding on narrative characteristics and does forgiveness status alter this general pattern?, (2) What are the relationships between objective self-report measures and the four narrative codes?, (3) How confidently can one predict forgiveness, as both a trait quality and a state-like decision, from the characteristics of personal narrative ?, and (4) What are the relationships between narrative characteristics and physiological measures of blood pressure and heart rate?

Results indicate that interviewer scaffolding has significant effects on richness and coherence, though in opposite directions. Neither of these structural variables was meaningfully associated with state or trait forgiveness, but conflict formulation showed a significant correlation with state forgiveness. In addition, conflict formulation and narrative-based forgiveness were positively related, further suggesting that the former tapped a situational perspective rather than a general philosophy. Analysis of the predictive power of narrative qualities relative to forgiveness yielded a significant model for state forgiveness but not for trait forgiveness. Narrative-based forgiveness was the only predictor variable to obtain significance, although the conflict formulation variable evidenced a marginal contribution . Finally, both coherence and richness displayed significant correlations with key physiological measures. Life story coherence was negatively related to resting diastolic blood pressure, while richness was negatively associated with systolic blood pressure levels during active reflection of betrayal episodes.

Results are discussed in light of study limitations and existing research on forgiveness and narrative development.

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