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Research Examines Physical
Dimensions of Forgiveness

Posted June 24, 1998

          HOLLAND -- It is better to forgive than to seethe.
          So goes the conventional wisdom, according to Dr.
  Charlotte vanOyen Witvliet of the Hope College psychology
  faculty.  Her latest research project, recently awarded an
  external grant, just may prove it.
          "Theorists, therapists and theologians alike have
  advanced the thesis that granting forgiveness is beneficial,
  and withholding forgiveness is detrimental for spiritual,
  psychological and physical health," said Witvliet, an
  assistant professor of psychology.  "But there is little
  data."
          Witvliet's two-year project is "Embodied
  Forgiveness:  Empirical Studies of Cognitive, Emotional and
  Physical Dimensions of Forgiveness-Related Responses."  She
  has received the grant through an international research
  opportunity program for Scientific Studies on the Subject of
  Forgiveness."
          Witvliet's research is one of 29 awards recently
  announced by Dr. Everett Worthington, director of the
  program.  Funding priority involved considerations of
  scientific merit along with pertinence to the criteria
  described in the request for proposals, according to the
  campaign's director, Dr. Everett Worthington.
          Broad areas of research funded through the program
  include projects on forgiveness and the Truth and
  Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, healing and
  reconciliation in Rwanda, marriage and family, end-of-life
  issues, a twin-family study, primate cultures and new models
  for measurement of forgiveness.  The researchers are based
  at 28 different institutions, ranging from the University of
  Wales, Cardiff, to Stanford University, to the University of
  Michigan, to Princeton University.
          Witvliet will focus on four key responses to
  interpersonal violations:  remembering the hurt, holding a
  grudge/plotting revenge against the perpetrator, developing
  empathy for the perpetrator and granting forgiveness.  She
  expects each of the four to either erode or enhance
  physical, spiritual and mental health.
          She will study personal responses in a group of
  volunteer test subjects.  The volunteers will be connected
  via electrodes to a computer that will monitor how they
  react physically to their memories and personal imagery of
  each forgiveness-related situation.  She will compare facial
  muscle tension, sweat, heart rate and blood pressure during
  these conditions with other, more frequently studied
  emotions--happiness and anger, for example.  She will look
  at what happens physically, on a second-by-second basis, as
  people mentally react to interpersonal hurts that happened
  to them in the past.
          Witvliet will conduct the physiological study with
  60 Hope students during the forthcoming 1998-99 school year.
  During the second year, she'll work with 100 veterans
  through a post-traumatic stress disorder clinic.
          "The Hope study will inform us about the basic,
  immediate psychophysiological impact of forgiveness-related
  responses," she said.  "The study of combat veterans will
  highlight how forgiveness-related responses are related to
  cognitive, emotional, spiritual and physical health."
          "How we respond to interpersonal hurts likely
  impacts health.  If you're doing this month after month,
  year after year, what would be some of the health
  implications of that?," she said.  For example, "If you're
  constantly focusing on the hurt and plotting revenge,
  cardiovascular problems, along with anger, anxiety and
  depression, might result."
  -30-
  


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