March 14, 2012 | Myrna Anderson

Psychology professor Blake Riek studies the motivators behind asking for forgiveness.

When psychology professor Blake Riek took up the study of forgiveness four years ago, he discovered a gap in the research. “Almost all of the literature was on the effect on the victim, not the transgressor,” he said.

So Riek decided to study the question of why people seek forgiveness. He partnered on the project with Lindsey Root Luna, a psychology professor at Ferris State University.  The two professors rounded up a research group for the project by polling their students. “We went into classrooms at Ferris and here (Calvin) and asked if students had committed a recent transgression that hadn’t been resolved yet,” Riek said.

Ninety student “transgressors” volunteered for the study, and they answered  questions about every facet of their offenses: How severe was the offense? How committed were you to the victim? How much do you feel at fault?

The prime motivator

The researchers used these questions to look for two motivations for asking forgiveness, Riek said: “The main things we were after were guilt and shame.”  The difference between the two responses is significant, he added, and it often goes unrecognized:

“Guilt says, ‘I feel bad about the offense and what I did,’” he explained, “but shame says, ‘I feel like a horrible person.”

The study found that guilt is a powerful motivator for seeking forgiveness: “Factors like severity and responsibility and commitment—the higher those were, the more guilty people felt … . The more guilty they felt, the more that made them seek forgiveness. “But shame didn’t have any relationship to that,” he said.

Guilt has its uses, Riek concluded: “While we think of guilt as this horrible, bad thing, it actually pushes you forward to mend relationships. Shame makes you retreat back into yourself.”

Riek’s student assistant on the forgiveness project was Chelsea Schnabelrauch, a psychology major who graduated from Calvin in 2011. “I brought this idea to her and said, ‘What should we be measuring?’ ‘What can we expect to find?’”  he said. “She was involved in designing the study. She helped collect data. She was involved at every stage of the project,” he said.

Currently a graduate student in social psychology at Kansas State University, Schnabelrauch enjoyed studying a topic as an undergrad that seemed familiar to her: “Unlike some research, forgiveness is obviously common knowledge, as it occurs in everyday life,” she said. “Everyone encounters it multiple times throughout life, so it's interesting to try to really dig in and explore something that seems so intuitive.”

The right reasons

Until fairly recently, forgiveness has been branded a “religious” issue and neglected as a research subject by the psychological community, Riek said. Current research on the subject tends to focus on the benefits of forgiveness —physical health, less depression, lower anxiety—for the forgiver. “That raises an issue of, ‘Should we forgive because it’s good for us, or because it’s the right thing to do,” he said. The Christian perspective on the issue should be clear, he said: “We forgive because we’ve been forgiven, not because it makes us feel better.”

Raised a Methodist in Binghampton, New York, Riek went to college, the State University of New York, intending to study psychology. He planned to go into private practice until he discovered social psychology, a discipline that uses psychological methods to study social influences. Riek specialized in reducing conflict at a group level. While in grad school, at the University of Delaware, he also discovered the Reformed thinking.

Not long after, when he had earned his PhD, Riek discovered Calvin. “If I could have designed a job for myself, this would be it,” he said. “I’m able to have small classes here, so I can get to know my students, but I can get my research done.”

Riek’s current work is published in several articles. (One co-authored by Schnabelrauch, is pending.) He will be speaking about his research at 3:30 p.m., Thursday, March 15 in science building 303.

The study has been fascinating, Riek said: “It’s given me an understanding of how complex a topic forgiveness can really be.”

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