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'Forgiveness and the Reduction of Intergroup Conflict' - Summary of Project Results

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Text and Research: Project Team (see below)
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Project Title: Forgiveness and the Reduction of Intergroup Conflict*

Centre for the Study of Conflict, University of Ulster at Coleraine.

The above project was of three years’ duration starting in January 1999. It was funded by the John Templeton Foundation at a total cost of £125,000.

Grant Holders:
Professor Ed Cairns (Project Manager), University of Ulster
Professor Miles Hewstone (Project Manager), University of Oxford
Professor Seamus Dunn, University of Ulster

Research Officers:
Dr. Frances McLernon, University of Ulster
Dr. Ulrike Niens, University of Ulster

Research Assistant:
Zoe Richards, University of Cardiff.
Marian Cooper, Wendy Moore, Carolin Hart, Denise Hourican, Michelle O’Neill, University of Ulster

The project was aimed to provide the first extensive theoretical and empirical study of intergroup forgiveness, and consisted of a total of eight studies, which capitalised on a broad range of research strategies. These included focus groups, which provided a qualitative background for later studies by exploring in depth concerns which key constituencies in Northern Ireland had surrounding forgiveness. Student surveys and random surveys of the Northern Irish population were conducted to investigate the extent to which ideas about forgiveness were shared across sections of the Northern Irish society. Theoretical models about the antecedents of intergroup forgiveness were developed and statistically tested. Scenario experiments were carried out to manipulate key variables of forgiveness (whether the perpetrator was a member of the ingroup or the outgroup, whether the perpetrator killed intentionally or not, and whether the killing was committed in retaliation to a prior incident) in order to confirm the relationship between predictors of interpersonal and intergroup forgiveness.

Summary of main results

In the first part of the project, scales measuring intergroup forgiveness and reconciliation have been developed for the Northern Irish context. In different subsequent studies, these have been found to be reliable and valid.

Generally, participants in focus groups appeared to understand forgiveness in a similar way as it was defined by Enright, Freedman & Rique (1998). Remorse on behalf of the perpetrator and empathy on behalf of the victim were regarded necessary for the process of forgiveness. Religiosity was raised as an important issue in relation to forgiveness. However, survey results indicated that religiosity was not a significant predictor of forgiveness. Participants saw a distinction between interpersonal and intergroup forgiveness, with intergroup forgiveness being more difficult to achieve. This was supported with data derived from scenario experiments, which indicated that interpersonal forgiveness was related to specific assumptions about the perpetrator while intergroup forgiveness was related to general intergroup variables.

Analyses of religious differences revealed that there were no major differences between Catholic and Protestant students in terms of their propensity to forgive. However, results from the random sample survey indicated Catholics tending to be more forgiving than Protestants. This survey also suggested possible variables mediating the relationship between denomination and forgiveness included educational level and social class or age. As students often come from higher educational background and often come from middle and upper class families, it could be hypothesised that higher educated Catholics and Protestants from middle and upper class families do not differ in relation to their levels of forgiveness in contrast to lower educated Catholics and Protestants from lower social class backgrounds. Age could be another factor mediating the relationship between denominational differences and forgiveness.

In terms of gender differences, in all three studies there was a tendency for women to be more inclined towards forgiveness than men. This result contradicts the literature where usually no gender differences have been found (Mullet, Houdbine, Laumonier & Girard, 1998).

Based on the data obtained in the student and random sample surveys, a series of analyses was carried out to investigate correlates and predictors of forgiveness. As the complex nature of the statistical analyses goes beyond the scope of this report, general trends will be summarised. Structural equation modelling using LISREL was applied to test theoretical models about which variables predict forgiveness and reconciliation in Northern Ireland. Variables under investigation were group identification, intergroup and interpersonal contact, intergroup anxiety, outgroup attitudes and forgiveness.

In general results revealed that the relationship between contact and outgroup attitudes and forgiveness was mediated by reduced intergroup anxiety. Lower levels of group identification significantly directly predicted higher propensity for forgiveness. Outgroup attitudes were positively related to forgiveness. Intergroup rather than interpersonal contact between Catholics and Protestants was positively associated ingroup bias, outgroup attitudes and forgiveness.

From the studies it was concluded that contact was strongly related to views of the out-group, namely ingroup bias and outgroup attitudes, perceived outgroup variability and forgiveness. These effects are mediated, in part, by reduced intergroup anxiety and improved perspective taking.

Contact with outgroup friends can lead to generalization, especially when friends remain aware of and refer to their respective group memberships during social interactions.

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