Psychology of Forgiveness: Does Actual Time and Subjective
Temporal Distance Influence Willingness to Forgive?
Imagine that you wrote a short story for a writing contest. You had planned to go
to the post office to mail the envelope with the short story in the afternoon.
However, your boss gave you some unexpected work that needed to be
completed. Thus, you were not able to go to the post office. A friend at work
had agreed to take the envelope with the short story to the post office in the
afternoon. However, the next day you learn that your friend failed to take the
envelope to the post office. As a result, you did not meet the deadline for the
writing contest. Would you be more likely to forgive your friend after two months
than after a few days?
Wohl and McGrath (2007) investigated the influence of amount of time and
subjective temporal distance on willingness to forgive someone.
In their first experiment, participants read a hypothetical situation in which a
friend failed to mail a job application for you before the deadline. In one condition,
the participants learned that this happened about two years ago. In another
condition, they learned that it happened about a month ago. On the average,
people who read that it happened about two years ago indicated that they would be
more willing to forgive the friend at the present point in time than the people who
read that it happened about a month ago.
Their other two studies provided evidence that the subjective temporal distance
of the negative event could influence willingness to forgive. In Experiment 3,
participants were asked to describe an event that happened to them about a month
ago. They manipulated the subjective temporal distance of the event by altering
how one of the endpoints of the temporal distance line was labeled. On the
average, participants in the subjectively distant condition indicated that they would
be more willing to forgive the person at the present point in time than participants in
the subjectively close condition. (1)
Implications for the Psychology of Forgiveness and Learning How to Forgive
People may be more willing to forgive someone for a transgression when the
actual time since the event is greater, and when the perceived distance in time of
the event is greater. Thus, the psychology of forgiveness suggests that learning
how to forgive someone may partly involve time.
See their article for information on other findings.
Wohl, M. J. A., & McGrath, A. L. (2007). The perception of time heals all
wounds: Temporal distance affects willingness to forgive following an
interpersonal transgression. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin,