2011. Vol.2, No.9, 936-940
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. DOI:10.4236/psych.2011.29141
Forgiving Significant Interpersonal Offenses: The Role of
Victim/Offender Racial Similarity*
Courtney Cornick1, Jessica M. Schultz2, Benjamin Tallman3,
Elizabeth M. Altmaier1,4
1Department of Psychological and Quantitative Foundations, University of Iowa, Iowa City, USA;
2Department of Psychology, Augustana College, Rock Island, USA;
3Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital, Chicago, USA;
4Department of Community and Behavioral Health, University of Iowa, Iowa City, USA.
Received August 17th, 2011; revised September 20th, 2011; accepted October 22nd, 2011.
The influence of victim/offender racial similarity on victim forgiveness was investigated in a study of interper-
sonal transgressions. It was hypothesized that racial similarity between victim and offender would influence for-
giveness only for transgressions that were less distressing for the victim. Participants were 104 adults (45 Black
and 59 White) who provided a narrative description of a significant interpersonal transgression they had experi-
enced and completed measures of transgression-related distress and forgiveness. Forgiveness was measured as
positive (benevolence) and negative (revenge, avoidance) motivations toward the offender. For negative motive-
tions, revenge and avoidance, there was no effect of racial similarity: more severe distress was associated with
less forgiveness for all victim/offender pairings. However, the results revealed a significant interaction of vic-
tim/offender racial similarity and distress for positive motivations: Black victims reported increased benevolence
towards Black offenders after more distressing transgressions. Victims in other racial combinations reported re-
duced benevolence for more distressing transgressions. In group favoring of Black offenders by Black victims
may be an unexplored aspect of forgiveness. Little research has addressed the potential influence of context on
interpersonal forgiveness, and this study suggests that these influences may play an important role.
Keywords: Forgiveness, Race, Cultural Psychology, Counseling
McCullough et al. (1998) defined forgiveness in motivational
terms: the victim releases negative motivations (e.g., revenge)
towards the offender and assumes positive motivations (e.g.,
goodwill) in the aftermath of an interpersonal transgression.
Similarly, Enright and Fitzgibbons (2000) suggest that forgive-
ness involves the victim overcoming negative affect and judg-
ment towards the offender and instead viewing him or her with
empathy or compassion.
However, it is important to consider forgiveness in a larger
context than that encompassing solely two people, particularly
when a larger perspective suggests societal or contextual influ-
ences on a victim’s forgiveness response. For example, Digeser
(2001) argued that oppressed groups experience a historical
burden of transgressions. Thus, forgiveness may be more diffi-
cult for oppressed persons than for persons with a history of
privilege. This difficulty may be especially present in person-
to-person forgiveness when the offender has a history of privi-
lege and the victim has a history of oppression. Race is an area
of clear differences between groups in terms of privilege and
Unfortunately, little is known about the role of race in for-
giveness. Erguner-Tekinalp (2007) studied Black college stu-
dents’ perceptions of historical racism and personally experi-
enced racially offensive acts. When Black students perceived
societal remorse and motivations for reparation, they reported
more forgiveness of historical racial transgressions. However,
these societal influences did not predict forgiveness for person-
ally experienced acts. When the context of racial similarity of
victim to offender is taken into account, forgiveness may be
altered. Miller (2001) summarized research that suggests a
victim will find an offender’s action more disrespectful if the
offender belongs to the same social group as the victim.
Distantly related research that explores whether culturally
different groups are able to forgive one another is relevant to
the current study. One of the primary examples of intergroup
forgiveness was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of
South Africa. This commission was created to assist with repa-
ration to, and the rehabilitation and restoration of human and
civil dignity of, victims of violations of human rights following
the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act in
1995. Research following the actions of the Commission dem-
onstrated that even in the context of profoundly severe
transgressions, such as murder and torture, victims of one race
were able to forgive offenders of another (Kaminer, Stein,
Mbanga, & Zungu-Dirwayi, 2001; Stein et al., 2008).
Forgiveness is predicted by many factors. For example, hav-
ing an offender apologize for the transgression is positively
related to the victim forgiving him or her (Girard, Mullet, &
Calahan, 2002). Transgression severity is also related to for-
giveness, with more severe transgressions predicting less for-
giveness. However, researchers have not analyzed the role of
racial similarity versus dissimilarity. The above discussion
suggests that people of varying races are able to forgive each
other, although the influence of past historical wrongs may
continue. If one considers research on racial micro aggressions
(see Sue et al., 2007) in combination with privilege and oppres-
sion, it would be reasonable to expect that a transgression
*This research was supported in part by a Summer Research Opportunity
Fellowship awarded to the first author by the Committee on Institutional
committed by a White offender would have a more negative
effect on a Black victim than if committed by a Black offender.
The current study examined forgiveness as a function of the
racial similarity of the victim and the offender. There were two
objectives for the study. First, is forgiveness affected by
whether the race of the victim is the same or different from that
of the offender? Second, does the impact of the transgression
moderate any relationship between racial difference and for-
giveness? Based on previous research, the hypothesis was that
more severe distress would be associated with less forgiveness.
Participants were adults from four cities who volunteered
based on advertisements posted in community locations. Data
for the current study were taken from a larger study of the rela-
tionship of forgiveness to posttraumatic growth (Schultz,
Tallman, & Altmaier, 2010) and consisted of those Black and
White victims who identified their offender as Black or White.
The sample consisted of 104 persons. There were 57 females
and 47 males; their average age was 41.67 years, SD = 13.58.
Demographic characteristics of the sample are presented in
Table 1.
Most participants identified a religious affiliation, and the
majority of those were a Christian denomination. Educational
Table 1.
Demographic characteristics.
Characteristic n %
Male 47 45.2
Female 57 54.8
White 59 56.7
Black 45 43.3
Religious affiliation
Protestant 34 33.0
Catholic 13 12.6
Christian 14 13.6
Spiritual 11 10.7
None 25 24.3
Other 6 5.7
Educational level
Below high school 8 7.7
Some high school 47 45.2
Some college 28 26.9
College degree 12 11.5
Graduate/professional degree 9 8.7
Marital status
Single/never married 52 50.5
Married/cohabitating 16 15.6
Separated/divorced 28 27.2
Widowed 6 5.8
Other 1 1.0
Note: Not all participants answered all questions.
background was diverse: equal numbers reported a graduate/
professional degree as reporting education below high school;
one-third of the sample had enrolled in college. Approximately
half the sample reported being single or never having married.
Institutional Review Board approval for the following pro-
cedure was obtained. Flyers inviting participation in a research
study about being “significantly wronged” by another person
were posted in businesses and community centers in four met-
ropolitan areas in the state in which the study was conducted.
The invitation directed potential participants to call a telephone
number for more information. When the telephone was not
personally answered, a voice message directed participants to
leave contact information or to return the call at certain hours.
During the telephone call, participants were informed about the
study and screened for three criteria: age between 18 and 75,
the transgression was not ongoing, and the transgression had
occurred no more than five years before. Participants were then
signed up for data collection at particular times at community
Upon arrival at the site, participants were provided with in-
formed consent and then completed study measures. Research-
ers (Black and White) were available at each site to answer
questions and monitor participants’ apparent state of distress.
Afterwards, participants were given $20 for their participation
and were provided with a list of local mental health resources
(including low cost and no cost services).
Demographic Variables
Participants provided information on demographic variables:
age, gender, race, employment status, marital status, educa-
tional status. Participants also provided as much parallel infor-
mation as possible concerning the offender. The participant
wrote a narrative description of the transgression, coded by
raters for type of transgression (see Schultz et al., 2010 for
additional details on coding process) The types of transgress-
sions experienced were sexual assault, physical assault, infidel-
ity, theft or damage of property, slander, betrayal, and lies.
The Impact of Event Scale—Revised (IES-R; Weiss & Mar-
mar, 1997) assesses subjective distress related to a specific life
event and was used as a measure of distress caused to the par-
ticipant by the transgression. The IES-R consists of 22 items.
Directions, which usually ask participants to rates distress ex-
perienced during the previous 7 days, were modified to assess
the highest distress caused by the transgression. Item responses
range from 0 (not at all) to 4 (extremely); higher scores reflect
increased levels of distress, and the total score can range from 0
to 88. Examples of items include “Pictures about it popped into
my mind” and “I felt irritable and angry”. The IES-R was vali-
dated with two groups of persons: emergency personnel ex-
posed to a freeway collapse and responders to an earthquake.
Coefficient alpha for the total score was previously reported
at .96.
Interpersonal forgiveness was measured by the Transgres-
sion-related Interpersonal Motivations Inventory—18 (TRIM-18;
McCullough et al., 1998; McCullough, Root, & Cohen, 2006).
The TRIM-18 has three scales: Avoidance (seven items; e.g. “I
withdraw from him/her”), Revenge (five items; e.g. “I’ll make
him/her pay”), and Benevolence (six items; e.g. “Even though
his/her actions hurt me, I have goodwill for him/her”). Partici-
pants used a five-point response scale (1 = strongly disagree to
5 = strongly agree). The three subscales of the TRIM-18 have
demonstrated internal consistency (α > .85) and test-retest sta-
bility (r .50). McCullough et al. (1998) provided validity
information on the measure’s significant correlation with qual-
ity and closeness of interpersonal relationships.
Data were analyzed using the SPSS program. Table 2 pre-
sents means, standard deviations, and possible score range for
study variables as well as coefficient alpha (scale reliability)
and scale inter-correlations. The first research question ad-
dressed differences in forgiveness as a function of racial simi-
larity between victim and offender. Four dyads were con-
structed based on offender race and participants’ race: White
offender/White victim (n = 53); Black offender/White victim (n
= 6); White offender/Black victim (n = 8); and Black of-
fender/Black victim (n = 37). Based on the dyads, three dummy
variables were created for the regression models. White of-
fender/White victim served as the baseline group (coded as 0)
to which the other three groups were compared (coded as 1).
Before regressions were conducted, assumptions were exam-
ined including normality (e.g., skewness and kurtosis) and out-
liers. Frequency distributions and scatter plots revealed that
continuous variables did not significantly deviate from normal-
ity; thus, the original data were retained. The racial difference
variables were entered into the first block, distress (measured
by the IES-R total) in the second block to control for variability
in forgiveness related to the transgression itself, and three in-
teraction terms between racial difference and distress in the
third block.
Three separate hierarchical regressions were conducted with
TRIM-18 subscales—Avoidance, Revenge, and Benevolence—
as dependent variables. In regression models with avoidance
and revenge as dependent variables, interaction terms were not
significant; distress did not moderate the relationships between
racial similarity and motivations for avoidance and revenge.
The simpler model of racial similarity and distress predicting
forgiveness scales was then considered. In this model, racial
similarity was held constant, and the effect of distress on for-
giveness was examined. Distress was positively related to re-
venge (B = .21, p < .05) and avoidance (B = .22, p < .05) after
controlling for racial similarity.
In the regression model for benevolence as a dependent
variable, a significant interaction emerged between benevo-
lence and the third dummy variable that was coded as Black
offender/Black victim (B = .963, p < .001). The relationship
between racial similarity and benevolence thus depends upon
the psychological impact of the event. The slopes of the four
dyads were graphed to determine the nature of the significant
interaction. See Figure 1. Regression slopes for three dyads—
White offender/White victim, Black offender/White victim,
White offender/Black victim—appeared similar; therefore, non-
significant dummy variables were reexamined in the regres-
sion analysis. No significant findings emerged for the dummy
variables. To increase statistical power two dyads were com-
bined to create a new dummy variable. The Black offender/
Black victim dyad was coded as 1; the other three groups as 0.
As in the previous regression model, the new dummy variable
was entered in the first block, distress in the second, and an
interaction term in the third block. The interaction between
distress and racial similarity/dissimilarity was significant (B =
1.02, p =.000). See Table 3 for regression coefficients.
When a moderated effect is present, it is important to de-
scribe the nature of the interaction (Hayes & Matthes, 2009). A
common approach to examining moderated effects is the
pick-a-point approach. This approach relies on arbitrarily pick-
ing points on the moderator variable at the mean and one stan-
dard deviation above and below the mean (Bauer & Curran,
2005). Confidence intervals are constructed to determine if the
independent variable is statistically significant at the chosen
points on the moderated variable. The Johnson-Neyman (J-N;
Johnson & Neyman, 1936) technique is a more precise method
of examining moderated effects, within linear models, and re-
moves the arbitrariness associated with the pick-a-point ap-
proach. The J-N technique creates confidence bands around
simple slopes of regression lines and provides a visual repre-
sentation, or a region of significance, of the effect of the inde-
pendent variable across values of the moderator variable. Con-
fidence bands are used to derive a point or points along a con-
tinuum at which the moderated variable is statistically signify-
The SPSS macro developed by Hayes and Matthes (2009)
was used to examine the moderated effects using the J-N tech-
nique. Ninety-five percent J-N confidence bands were con-
structed for the impact of event. The confidence band for the
lower limit was 23.52 and the upper limit was 47.63. Scores
that fall outside the range 23.52 x 47.63 are significant. We
also examined the simple slopes of racial difference as a di-
chotomous moderator variable. The simple slope for Black
perpetrator/Black victim dyad was .159 (LLCI= .2483, ULCI
= .0699, p = .000). The simple slope for the combined racial
dyad group was .1288 (LLCI = .0047; ULCI = .2527, p = .04).
As a general statement, results revealed that Black victims
were more forgiving of Black offenders (reported more be-
nevolence) when the transgression was more distressing than
less distressing; for all other racial combinations, the reverse
was true, that victims were less forgiving of offenders when the
Table 2.
Descriptive statistics and corre l a tions of study variables.
1 2 3 4
M SD α Range
1. Distress - .23* .21* –.14 44.8 17.5 .92 0 - 88
2. Avoidance .23* - .43*** –.51** 22.9 7.2 .79 7 - 35
3. Revenge .21* .43*** - –.45** 12.0 5.3 .82 5 - 25
4. Benevolence –.14 –.51** –.45** - 16.8 7.0 .84 6 - 30
Note: Correlations are zero order; *p < .05. **p < .001.
Table 3.
Regression coefficients for forgiveness (Benevolence).
Predictor variable B SEB β
Model 1
Black offender/White victim (BW).128 7.84 3.79
White offender/Black victim (WB)–.031 10.05 –.814
Black offender/Black victim (BB) –.736* 3.92 –10.63
Distress (D) –.362* .05 –.143
BW × D –.194 .149 –.108
WB × D –.012 .209 –.007
BB × D .963** .081 .272
Model 2
Constant 2.127 23.112
Black offender/Black victim (BB) –.756* 3.76 –11.055
Distress (D) –.401** .045 –.159
BB × D 1.020** .077 .288
Note: For Model 1, R2 = .16 (p < .01); for model 2, R2 = .16 (p < .001); For Model
1, BW, WB, and BB were coded as 1; White offender/White victim (coded as 0)
was the baseline group to which the three other groups were compared. For Model
2, BB was coded as 1 and the other groups were coded as 0; *p < .01. **p < .001.
Figure 1.
Graph of regression slopes for racial similarity/dissimilarity dyads.
WW = White offender/White victim. BB = Black offender/Black victim.
WB = White offender/Black victim. BW = Black offender/White victim.
transgression was severe. For the negative forgiveness variables
of revenge and avoidance, there were no effects of racial simi-
larity: all victims reported more revenge and avoidance when
the transgressions were more severe.
This research addressed whether being of the same or differ-
ent race than the offender affected victim forgiveness, and
whether any influence of racial similarity on forgiveness was
moderated by the distress caused by the transgression. It is
important to note that participants had experienced transgress-
sions that resulted in significant distress: all categories of trans-
gression were rated as highly distressing with the exception of
theft of personal property, which was rated as moderately dis-
tressing. The research hypothesis was that less distressing of-
fenses would be forgiven more by a victim when the offender
was racially similar.
The results confirmed the hypothesis for the forgiveness re-
sponses of revenge and avoidance. Both Black and White vic-
tims reported more revenge and more avoidance of their of-
fender for more distressing offenses. However, the reverse was
demonstrated for the forgiveness response of benevolence: As
transgression-related distress increased, benevolence also in-
creased for Black victims of Black offenders. Increased trans-
gression-related distress was related to lower benevolence for
all other racial pairings: Black victims and White offenders,
White victims and White offenders, and White victims and
Black offenders.
Research has been published that is relevant to these findings.
Mania (2009) studied Black and White college students’ re-
sponses to media-publicized transgressions committed by a
Black professional athlete and a White professional sport coach
and in-group favoring of forgiveness responses for the Black
athlete by the Black students were noted. However, transgress-
sions used in that study were not personally relevant, and for-
giveness was measured by only two items. The current data,
from adults who had experienced interpersonal transgressions,
also support in-group favoring by Black victims.
Why did Black victims report more benevolent motivations
for Black offenders during highly distressing events than for
transgressions that are less distressing? The conflict perspective
in the field of criminology (Johnson, 2006; Quinney, 1970)
suggests that Black response to injustice is tempered by recog-
nition that both the criminal justice system and society are as-
sociated with out-group prejudice which favors White persons.
More recently, Johnson (2008) found that racial differences in
support for punitive laws and policies, such as three-strike laws,
were partially accounted for by perceived racial bias: Blacks
perceived more bias than Whites, and this perceived bias helped
explain Blacks’ lower support for highly punitive laws.
From another perspective, Witvliet, Knoll, Hinman, and
DeYoung (2010) recently demonstrated that empathy for of-
fenders was reported more within compassion-focused reap-
praisal strategies, which were associated with increased positive
emotions and changed EMG and cardiac activity. In the current
findings, the negative motivations of forgiveness—revenge and
avoidance—were directly related to distress while the positive
motivations—benevolence—revealed a moderating effect of
racial similarity. It appears that empathy for the offender within
this study might have been more triggered when both victim
and offender was Black.
The lack of difference between forgiving someone racially
similar versus racially dissimilar is encouraging from a social
justice perspective. In the literature on the Truth and Recon-
ciliation Commission in South Africa, forgiveness was also
demonstrated across racial and cultural groups (Kaminer et al.,
2001; Stein et al., 2008). For many, forgiveness is a cultural
practice learned through cultural teachings, family, and/or reli-
gious doctrine. Recent literature establishes culturally-specific
conceptualizations of forgiveness, especially among ethni-
cally-based cultures (e.g., Suwartono, Praswasti, & Mullet,
This research has several limitations. First, the transgressions
were quite severe, and different conclusions might have been
revealed if more “every day” transgressions had been reported.
Examples of these every day transgressions are being cut off in
traffic by another driver, or being interrupted in conversation.
Second, all measures were self-report, and the relationship of
this self-report to behavior is not certain.
Forgiveness is more than an interesting aspect of life; signi-
ficant mental and physical health benefits are related to for-
giveness (Harris & Thoresen, 2005; Wade, Worthington, &
Meyer, 2005). Psychological variables associated with race,
such as collectivist orientation or religious salience, are impor-
tant areas to explore with regard to forgiveness. Other variables
for future research in this area include one’s exposure to dif-
ferent racial groups and forgiveness of racially motivated
transgressions such as discrimination. Last, the potential influ-
ence of race and other societal and contextual variables in study
of forgiveness treatments is also an important area for investi-
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