Changed Behavior and Forgiveness
According to research, the answer can be yes, but not without its limitations and boundaries. For many of us, our general personalities mature as we grow, develop, and experience new things. Some of us may modify our personalities depending on the social environment we find ourselves in (i.e., in the workplace). Others may develop new varieties of their personalities when they invest in romantic partnerships. These sorts of personality changes reflect how different social roles may influence our thought-patterns and behaviors. While these types of adaptations to specific social roles are surely personality changes, they are not incredibly drastic. The million dollar question is whether people who have done terrible things can ever really change.
Nathan W. Hudson and R. Chris Fraley from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (2015) conducted a study exploring whether people can change their personalities if they genuinely want to. The researchers recruited 135 undergraduate students to participate in their research. The students were instructed to complete one section of the study each week. Each section asked participants to self-report their scores in the Big Five personality traits: agreeableness, conscientiousness, openness, extraversion, and neuroticism. Participants were also instructed to create personal goals in regards to improving or modifying their scores in the Big Five personality traits.
The researchers found that the higher the participants rated they wanted to achieve improvement in one the traits, the more likely they were to report they did improve throughout the study’s weeks. Of course, there are limitations to this study.
The study consisted of participants self-reporting their change in behavior, which may not reflect reality, and the participants were volunteers and not convicted offenders. However, what the study does shine a light on is: actively setting personal goals for self-improvement and accomplishing these goals. The key to Hudson and Fraley’s research is that these participants wanted to achieve these goals. If we were to imagine their study at a broader level, it would be interesting to investigate whether programs which encourage people who have committed serious offenses or individuals who have experience severe regrets in life to create self-improvement plans. In addition to the help of these programs, these individuals not only set these goals but do what is necessary to change their behavior. It’s a stretch, but it would be interesting to find more research that explores this topic.
Now the focus shifts to the victims of these crimes. Is it fair to tell victims phrases such as “forgiveness will set you free” or to “let go of your hatred?" In my belief, the answer is no. It can be helpful to encourage those who have been wronged to find happiness and peace, but these individuals should have the right to choose how they wish to go about their lives. They may not want to forgive at that moment, or ever. And that is fine. Only that person can figure out what the best course of action for their life is. Yes, there is evidence that some people can change. Even if someone who has committed a terrible injustice has indeed changed, this changes does not erase what occurred in the past.