Professor leads infidelity, forgiveness study

Some people say that forgiveness is the final form of love. That may be true for some, but according to a new case study, forgiveness might actually reflect badly on the victim of infidelity.

Heather Smith, a psychology professor at Sonoma State, led a study with her team of co-authors Chris Goode and Desiree Ryan to explore the correlation of infidelity and forgiveness and how society views the actions of victims of infidelity.

“To forgive another's transgression is difficult, and I think our study illustrates one more reason why so many people might be reluctant to forgive,” said Smith.

That reason, according the results of the study, rests with the way society judges a victim’s choice of whether or not to forgive their lover’s transgression. In each of the questionnaires that were conducted, the researchers concluded that, “even with a clear indication that the romantic partner apologized, and the recognition that to forgive is a mature reaction, observers viewed a victim who forgave to be weak and incompetent.”

Inspiration for this project began with comments told to Smith by several young women about how they were not likely to vote for Hilary Clinton during her last campaign for presidency due to the fact that she had forgiven Bill Clinton’s infidelity.

This prompted Smith and her co-authors to explore the idea that the women placed more emphasis on Hilary Clinton’s act of forgiveness rather than Bill Clinton’s original transgression. In other words, the act of forgiving one’s transgression might weigh worse on the victim’s reputation than the reputation of the offender.

The project involved three study groups, each ranging in age and gender, which were given a series of situations in where they were asked to rate a victim according to their partner’s transgressions and how the victim reacts to the situation.

In the first study, one hundred male fraternity members read a vignette where one member (the victim) was told that his romantic partner had been unfaithful. The members were then given a series of possible scenarios where the victim reacted in different ways to his partner’s infidelity. However, the members did not include the victim’s actions as a possible way to decrease the group’s power or status.

The second study involved female voters, ranging from 20 to 79 years old, that were given different scenarios of a woman as a first-time political candidate reacting in different ways to her partner’s transgressions. Researchers gathered that, “participants rated a victim who forgave romantic infidelity as less competent, slightly weaker, and less worthy of support in comparison with a victim who left the offender.”

Furthermore, the results concluded that the women also believed that the political candidate’s behavior could damage the reputation and shared values of the group.

Following the results of the first two studies, researches began their third study, which questioned men and women with the same scenario in order to compare the results between genders. The researchers found that this study further proved that if the group’s shared values matched those that drove victim’s actions had a direct impact on the group’s endorsement of that individual.

Using all three studies, this research suggests that there are negative consequences for victims who forgive transgressions, specifically to the damage of the “victim’s reputation as a competent and strong group member.”

While the results of these studies proved successful in finding a correlation between the forgiving of transgressions and the judgments of society on that individual, there are still many factors to consider. Each scenario is different and each victim and their values are different.

For now, this research proves that society views harshly on the reputation of the individual who forgives infidelity almost as much as the individual who committed the original act. Perhaps when looking to be a part of the shared values of society, forgiveness is not the best option.