From the perspective of cognitive science, overcoming strong negative emotions toward the person who did us wrong and quashing impulses for retribution or vengeance - processes that are critical to forgiveness - may be seen as a function of executive control.
And research suggests that this executive control is also involved in our ability to forget something when we're motivated to forget it.
Saima Noreen, lead author of the study, decided to examine whether this same cognitive mechanism might form a link between forgiveness and forgetting.
The study, conducted with colleagues Malcolm MacLeod and Raynette Bierman, involved participants reading 40 scenarios that contained hypothetical wrongdoings, including infidelity, slander, and theft. They were asked to evaluate the transgression and say whether, as the victim, they would forgive the misdeed.
About 1 to 2 weeks later, they read a subset of the scenarios again, but this time each scenario was paired with a neutral cue word. After learning the scenario-cue pairings, the participants were presented with some of the cue words, written in either red or green, and were instructed to recall the related scenario when the cue word was green, and to avoid thinking about the scenario when the cue word was red.
For transgressions they had forgiven in the first session, participants showed more forgetting when they had been instructed to forget the scenario in the second session, compared to when they had been given no specific instructions.
In contrast, participants showed no forgetting for scenarios they had not forgiven, even when they had been told to forget them.
The findings have been published in the journal Psychological Science.