Eye for an eye? Why punishing the wrongdoer helps us forgive

Justice and forgiveness can co-exist so that one may encourage the other. Steve Calcott/Flickr, CC BY-NC

One of the inevitable things in life is that someone will do or say something to upset and hurt us. While forgiveness is a good way to overcome such hurts, we also don’t want people to get away with what they did. So my colleagues and I set out to test whether it’s possible to forgive and get justice.

Forgiveness is the process in which a victim’s thoughts, feelings and attitudes towards an offender transitions from negative to neutral or positive. Of the many ways people deal with transgressions, forgiveness is particularly effective. It restores valued relationships and frees people from the weight of negative feelings associated with being hurt.

The importance of justice

Typically, someone is more likely to forgive when the offender makes constructive efforts to mend hurtful behaviour. Or when the victim re-frames their thoughts and feelings about the transgression and the offender (“she didn’t mean to do it”, for example, or “our relationship is more important”). Or, of course, when both happen.

But sometimes offenders are not aware of their hurtful behaviour so they don’t take responsibility, their reparative efforts are inadequate, or re-framing encourages forgiveness but still leaves residual resentment.

So my research group decided to test an alternative pathway to forgiveness. What we tested - and found - was that, in interpersonal relationships, victims who punish their offending partners are subsequently better able to forgive them. Although our idea wasn’t new, we were the first to test it empirically.

Now, at first glance, this claim may appear counter-intuitive. People tend to think that punishment and forgiveness are opposites. When you punish someone, you hurt them; when you forgive, you are benevolently disposed towards them.

But we found consistent and strong evidence of a positive relation between punishment and forgiveness. Importantly, we also found that punishing provides victims with the sense that justice has been done.

Justice refers to fairness, which is fundamentally important to humans, particularly when we’ve been wronged. Research in the criminal justice system suggests people prefer to punish so that offenders get their just deserts.

But punishment must fit the crime; offenders should be seen to suffer to the same degree as the person they hurt. If this happens, the victim’s suffering is, theoretically at least, cancelled out.

Fitting the crime

People tend to feel better when they believe offenders have got their just deserts. And this has the effect of returning relations between victim and offender to an even keel because the former feel more empowered and in control.

The restoration of these valued psychological states is important for encouraging forgiveness. Punishment also sends a deterring message: “I value this relationship, so don’t do it again!”

We must remember that when a person has been hurt by another, they are vulnerable to the states that only justice can restore: feeling demeaned, lacking control and feeling disconnected from the person who hurt them.

Forgiving means being vulnerable again. But by punishing, victims may feel strengthened and sufficiently confident to risk being vulnerable one more time, so they can forgive.

It’s important here to distinguish between punishment and revenge. Revenge effectively means not only making another person suffer, but making them suffer more. Vengeful responses tend to be destructive; they usually lead to a downward spiral of revenge and counter-revenge.

When the point of punishment is to restore fairness, the punishing act should be perceived as roughly equivalent to the original hurt. What constitutes a “fair” punishment usually depends on the nature of the relationship between victim and offender.

According to the participants in our studies, the most effective punishment is achieved through dialogue. This usually means communicating to the offender what he or she has done, explaining why it is so upsetting, and often discussing how the offender will make up for it.

Although victims don’t necessarily set out to make an offender feel bad, guilt is often an outcome, making talking the punishment. When victims think they’ve been heard, that unfair behaviour will be addressed or that the offender is also hurting (or all of these), then they feel justice has been done. And forgiveness is more likely.

Naturally, we wouldn’t advocate pre-emptive punishment. But in situations where victims may need to re-assert themselves, punishment that’s fair seems to be a viable and effective way of enabling forgiveness.

Our research suggests that justice and forgiveness — two responses generally thought to be contradictory — can co-exist, so that one may encourage the other.