The Model and Definition of Forgiveness

The Heartland Forgiveness Scale is based on the following definition and model of forgiveness. Forgiveness is defined as

the framing of a perceived transgression such that one’s responses to the transgressor, transgression, and sequelae of the transgression are transformed from negative to neutral or positive. The source of a transgression, and therefore the object of forgiveness, may be oneself, another person or persons, or a situation that one views as being beyond anyone’s control (e.g., an illness, “fate,” or a natural disaster). (Thompson et al., 2005, p. 318).

The process of forgiveness, transforms a person’s responses to the transgressor, transgression, and the negative consequences (i.e., the sequelae) of the transgression. Responses are a person’s transgression- and transgressor-related thoughts, feelings and behaviors. The concept of responses has two components, valence and strength. Valence refers to whether the thoughts, feelings, or behaviors are negative, neutral, or positive. Strength refers to the intensity and intrusiveness of the thoughts, feelings, or behaviors, and it can vary as a result of factors such as the perceived harm caused by the transgression.

A person who forgives may transform his or her negative responses by (a) changing the valence from negative to either neutral or positive, or (b) changing both the valence and strength of the responses.

In order to forgive, the valence of a person’s responses must change, at least to neutral. Some argue that in order to forgive, a person must develop compassion and empathy for the transgressor. In the model of forgiveness upon which the HFS is based, it is not necessary to develop positive responses such as compassion and empathy. Neutral responses are considered sufficient for forgiveness.

It is not necessary for a person to change the strength of his or her responses in order to forgive. Nonetheless, weakening one’s responses may foster forgiveness because it decreases the intrusiveness or intensity of negative transgression-related thoughts or feelings. Thus, weakening of responses may be involved when people report that “time” has helped them to forgive.

The inclusion of “situations” as a potential source of transgressions (and target of forgiveness) appears to be unique to this conceptualization of forgiveness, and to the Heartland Forgiveness Scale. Situations that violate people’s positive assumptions and lead to negative responses to those situations are responded to as transgressions. For example, a catastrophic illness might violate a person’s assumptions of invulnerability or meaningfulness (e.g., “I’m healthy” and “bad things don’t happen to good people for no reason”), and lead to negative thoughts, feelings, or behaviors about the illness and related sequelae (e.g., feelings of anger or sadness and the thoughts “this has ruined my life; I don’t deserve this”).

About the HFS
Learn more about the HFS.

HFS Citation and Abstract
See the full citation and abstract for the 2005 HFS article published in the Journal of Personality.