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University of Iowa News Release


Jan. 17, 2012

Photo credit: Kirk Murray, College of Education

UI study examines role of racial similarity on victim forgiveness

University of Iowa researchers and colleagues have shown that racial similarity between victim and offender influences forgiveness following significant interpersonal transgressions, most notably in the black victim-black offender pairing.

The findings, published in the December 2011 issue of the journal Psychology, indicated that black victims reported an increased benevolence, or goodwill, toward black offenders as their transgression-related distress increased. Conversely, increased transgression-related distress was related to lower benevolence for all other racial pairings.

The researchers had hypothesized, based on previous research, that more severe distress would be associated with less forgiveness in all racial pairings. So why did black victims report more benevolent motivations for black offenders during highly distressing events?

"You can hypothesize that a community sense in the black community of sticking it out together might be significant here, but we don't know why it wouldn't look the same in other racial pairings," said Courtney Cornick, Ph.D. student in counseling psychology at the UI College of Education and lead study author. Elizabeth Altmaier, UI professor of counseling psychology in the College of Education, is senior study author.

As expected, both black and white victims reported more revenge and avoidance of their offenders for more distressing events.

The researchers studied 104 participants -— 57 females and 47 males, 59 white and 45 black -- in four Iowa cities. The participants provided a narrative description of a significant interpersonal transgression they had experienced -- such as sexual assault, physical assault, and infidelity -- and completed measures of transgression-related distress and forgiveness. Forgiveness was measured as positive (benevolence) and negative (revenge, avoidance) motivations toward the offender.

Cornick said the study provides a better understanding of distress and forgiveness.

"Distressing situations happen everywhere, but forgiveness is possible," said Cornick, Graduate College Dean's Fellow. "There are actual benefits to someone's health if they can let go of the transgression and forgive. Sometimes, when people think something is impossible, knowing that it is possible is meaningful."

The researchers acknowledge there are limitations to their study. First, the transgressions were quite severe, and different conclusions could have been reached if more "every day" transgressions had been reported, like being cut off in traffic by another driver, or being interrupted in conversation. Second, all measures were self-reported, and the relationship of this self-report to behavior is not certain.

The study was funded by a Summer Research Opportunity Fellowship from the Committee on Institutional Cooperation.

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa Graduate College Office of External Relations, 205 Gilmore Hall, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500

MEDIA CONTACT: John Riehl, 319-384-1309,