This project represents an initial effort to study the cultural, emotional and social factors that contribute to forgiveness for mass atrocities. Human history is replete with examples of groups committing mass atrocities against each other, such as the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide committed by the Turks, and slavery in the US. Negative emotions and mistrust can be directed at the perpetrator group by members of the victim group for generations long after the actual perpetrators and victims have died. These negative emotions and mistrust can potentially prevent positive intergroup relations and exacerbate or increase the likelihood of conflict.

The research supported by this grant will study the forgiveness of Jews for the Holocaust and Armenians for the Armenian genocide. Using experimental methods, the investigators will explore whether and to what extent ethnic and religious identity are associated with forgiveness, and expressed feelings towards the offender groups (Germans for Jews, Turks for Armenians). In addition, the investigators will consider the impact of the passage of time since the event. The proposed research will make several important contributions by advancing theories about cultural influences on forgiveness and intergroup relations, and enhancing understanding of a set of processes that have direct implications for the lives of individuals and groups across the globe.

Project Report

This was a junior investigator award grant to provide pilot data for a full-scale proposal on forgiveness for mass atrocities. We theorize that the more people feel ethnically identified with their group, the less forgiving they will be. We also theorize that religiousness in Christians will make people more forgiving, but religiousness among Jews will make people less forgiving, because of the theology regarding forgiveness in each group. We plan to study this with reference to slavery for Black Christians and the Holocaust for Jews. To be able to experimentally change how much people are thinking about ethnicity or religion, With NSF support, we pilot tested two versions of ethnic or religious primes with Yeshiva University Jewish students—word unscrambling (which was quite successful) or writing an essay or religious vs ethnic identity vs control condition (120 participants). We focus here on the word unscrambling because we discovered that many of our Ps wrote ‘White’ or ‘Caucasian’ for their ethnicity when probed open-ended—not Jewish. Comparing people in the Ethnic unscramble condition (e.g., turning ASHK_N_Z_C into Ashkenazic), religious condition (R_BB_NI_ into rabbinic), or control condition, there was a suggestion of differences in forgiveness of the Holocaust. People primed with ethnicity were less forgiving than those in the control condition, and the same was marginally so for people in the religious condition. These results suggest that manipulating ethnic and religious salience can affect forgiveness tendencies, in line with our proposed theory. We also examined if people's perception of the time elapsed since the event would change forgiveness. Additionally, with NSF support, we performed a pilot experiment with 60 Yeshiva University students, randomly assigned to write an essay about how the Holocaust was either recent or distant (there was also a no-essay control condition). First, across manipulations, the correlation between ratings of the felt recency of the Holocaust and willingness to forgive was trivial and nonsignifican. Students who wrote an essay about the Holocaust being recent subsequently rated, in a manipulation check, the Holocaust as seeming more recent than did students in the other conditions. This time elapse manipulation did not, however, alter forgiveness. In fact, the pattern of means was such that students in both the recent and distant conditions were less forgiving than students in the no-essay control condition, suggesting that any reminder of the Holocaust may make Jews less forgiving. These findings suggest that within-group differences in temporal perceptions do not change forgiveness significantly—and to the extent that they might, they do not do so in a way that artifactually generates our hypothesized pattern. In all, these data show the feasibility of accomplishing the goals set out in our full scale proposals, and provide data suggesting the appropriateness of our theoretical model and experimental approaches.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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Sally Dickerson
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Arizona State University
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