Luther professors, students show self-forgiveness may protect against negative effects of hostility on cognitive function

The American Psychological Association journal, Health Psychology, recently published the empirical article, "Hostility, Forgiveness, and Cognitive Impairment Over 10 Years in a National Sample of American Adults." The research was conducted by Luther College Professors Loren Toussaint and Stephanie Travers with Luther graduates Emily Green and Kelly Kennedy, and all members of the Laboratory for the Investigation of Mind, Body, and Spirit. The Luther lab collaborated with Grant Shields from the University of California-Davis, and George Slavich from the University of California-Los Angeles.

The goal of this collaboration was to examine "the extent to which self-forgiveness and forgiveness of others moderated the association of hostility with changes in cognitive impairment over 10 years in a nationally representative sample of adults in the United States." Forgiveness and hostility were measured at baseline, as was cognitive impairment. Cognitive impairment was then measured again 10 years later. This allowed the team to examine how hostility, self-forgiveness and forgiveness of others were related to decade-long changes in cognitive impairment. The sample was a nationally representative sample of adults with an average age of 57 years at baseline.

"The genesis of this work is an idea that was born of conversations amongst the Luther group on how forgiveness might play a role in cognitive health. Emily Green was an early key contributor to conceptualizing this model, and later Kelly Kennedy who was a four-year member of the lab contributed to helping analyze and present the data. It’s the whole point of our lab—to bring students of psychological science, and off-campus colleagues, together to catalyze their thinking and hopefully spawn new ideas that make strong contributions to the psychological literature," said Toussaint.

Hostility has detrimental effects on health and well-being, and recent research suggests these ill effects extend to cognitive function. The purpose of the research was to determine if self-forgiveness and forgiveness of others could offset the negative effects of hostility on cognitive health. Statistically speaking, this would be known as a buffering effect of the forgiveness variables.

"This is the first study we know of to show that associations between individuals' hostility levels and changes in cognitive impairment over time are buffered by self-forgiveness," the group wrote.

"These findings support the [Toussaint's] stress and coping theory of self-forgiveness and suggest that self-forgiveness may help mitigate the negative cognitive health consequences typically associated with hostility," they reported. The findings also suggest that, "Enhancing self-forgiveness may thus represent one possible strategy for promoting cognitive resilience and healthy aging."

Additional research will be necessary to refine measurements and improve designs to better understand the exact causal mechanisms linking self-forgiveness, hostility and cognitive function.

Loren Toussaint, Luther professor of psychology, is a consultant to Mayo Clinic, Cancer Treatment Centers of America, Boise State University, and the associate director of the Sierra Leone Forgiveness Project. Toussaint's research examines virtues, especially forgiveness, and how they are related to health and well-being. He and his colleagues recently published a compendium of research titled: Forgiveness and Health: Scientific Evidence and Theories Relating Forgiveness to Better Health (Springer).

Toussaint directs the Laboratory for the Investigation of Mind, Body, and Spirit at Luther College. He encourages "everyday forgiveness" to build resilience and minimize stress in families, schools, healthcare, workplaces and communities.

Toussaint's work has been highlighted in a number of print, online and radio media outlets such as: TIME, U.S. News, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Des Moines Register, Georgia Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Huffington Post, Today.com, Ladies Home Journal, Scotland on Sunday, Men’s Health, Psychology Today and the Associated Press.

Stephanie Travers, Luther associate professor of psychology, has been a professor in the psychology department since 2006. Her work focuses on memory, executive control processes, and aging and cognitive processes.

She teaches General Psychology, Developmental Psychology, Cognitive Processes and Psychology of Aging, and during January Term leads a course on the study of adult development and aging.

Emily Green, from Dubuque, Iowa, graduated from Luther in 2018 with degrees in neuroscience and psychology. She is working as a researcher in dementia studies in the Twin Cities. 

Kelly Kennedy, Luther class of 2018, is studying psychology in the graduate program at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. She graduated from Luther, magna cum laude, with a degree in psychology. Kennedy is from Grey Eagle, Minnesota.

Grant S. Shields, M.A., studies the effects of stress on cognition and the implications of those effects for health. He is presently a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Davis.

George M. Slavich, Ph.D. is a leading expert in the conceptualization, assessment and management of life stress, and in psychological and biological mechanisms linking stress with poor health. He is an associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA, a research scientist at the Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology, and director of the UCLA Laboratory for Stress Assessment and Research (http://www.uclastresslab.org). His research has been covered by The New York Times, The Guardian, The Atlantic, Scientific American, TIME Magazine, HBO, NPR, U.S. News & World Report, and others.

A national liberal arts college with an enrollment of 2,005, Luther offers an academic curriculum that leads to the Bachelor of Arts degree in more than 60 majors and pre-professional programs. For more information about Luther visit the college's website: http://www.luther.edu.

Loren Toussaint