Is empathy important for forgiveness?

based on reviews by Wenrui Cao, James Bartlett and Saleh Shuqair
A recommendation of:

The link between Empathy and Forgiveness: Replication and extensions of McCullough et al. (1997)'s Study 1

Submission: posted 25 January 2023
Recommendation: posted 07 April 2023, validated 11 April 2023
Cite this recommendation as:
Chambers, C. (2023) Is empathy important for forgiveness?. Peer Community in Registered Reports, .


Forgiveness is a core feature of human psychology in which a person makes a deliberate decision to cease negative emotions or attitudes toward an offender who has done them harm. The concept of interpersonal forgiveness is deeply embedded across societies, but much remains to be understood about how it actually works. What are its key ingredients and why does it occur in the first place? Research in social psychology has demonstrated a range of personal and social benefits of forgiveness, giving rise to two dominant mechanistic accounts – one that positions empathy as the driving factor and another that centres motivated reasoning (Donovan & Priester, 2017).
In the current study, Chan and Feldman (2023) seek to replicate a formative study by McCullough et al (1997) that led to the so-called Empathy Model of forgiveness. According to this theory, forgiving is a motivational change facilitated (crucially) by empathy, promoting constructive over destructive behaviour toward the offender. Chan and Feldman will replicate Study 1 from McCullough et al., measuring the correlational relationship between apology, forgiving, and empathy for offenders, and exploring whether forgiving is associated with increased conciliation and decreased avoidance motivation. As well as closely replicating the original study, the authors will extend it to test the more severe hypothesis that empathy causally influences forgiveness. To achieve this, they will experimentally manipulate empathy by adding two groups to the design: one in which participants are asked to recall hurtful past experiences in which they were not empathetic to the offender, and another in which they were highly empathetic.
The Stage 1 manuscript was evaluated over two rounds of in-depth review. Based on detailed responses to the reviewers' comments, the recommender judged that the manuscript met the Stage 1 criteria and therefore awarded in-principle acceptance (IPA).
URL to the preregistered Stage 1 protocol:
Level of bias control achieved: Level 6. No part of the data or evidence that will be used to answer the research question yet exists and no part will be generated until after IPA. 
List of eligible PCI RR-friendly journals:
1. Donovan, L. A. N., & Priester, J. R. (2017). Exploring the psychological processes underlying interpersonal forgiveness: The superiority of motivated reasoning over empathy. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 71, 16-30.
2. Chan, C. F. & Feldman, G. (2023). The link between Empathy and Forgiveness: Replication and extensions of McCullough et al. (1997)'s Study 1, in principle acceptance of Version 2 by Peer Community in Registered Reports.
Conflict of interest:
The recommender in charge of the evaluation of the article and the reviewers declared that they have no conflict of interest (as defined in the code of conduct of PCI) with the authors or with the content of the article.

Reviewed by , 23 Mar 2023

The authors have clearly addressed all my comments. I am happy with the study in its current form.

For more of a suggestion that applies to any exploratory analyses, I appreciate its an area of debate in replication work whether you should follow the target study as close as possible, “warts and all”. If you change the approach, it opens an argument on whether it’s a direct replication or not. For my comments on correcting for pairwise comparisons and assessing the impact of outliers, I’m happy for them to be added as additional exploratory analyses, but I would encourage exploring their impact to comment on whether the results were robust to these kind of analysis choices.

In the interests of transparency, I sign my reviews.

Dr James Bartlett, University of Glasgow, UK.


Evaluation round #1

DOI or URL of the report:

Version of the report: 1

Author's Reply, 09 Mar 2023

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Revised manuscript:

All revised materials uploaded to:, updated manuscript under sub-directory "PCIRR Stage 1\PCI-RR submission following R&R"

Decision by , posted 14 Feb 2023, validated 14 Feb 2023

I have now received three helpful reviews of your Stage 1 submission. All of the reviews are positive to varying extents. Shuqair is satisfied with the proposal in its current state, while Bartlett and Cao provide a range of constructive suggestions for improvement, with Bartlett highlighting many methodological issues that require further clarification or justification, and Cao questioning the rationale of the replication as well as the validity of key design elements.

On the issue of the justification for the replication (and whether replicating McCullough et al 1997 is sufficiently important given more recent movement in the field), the Stage 1 criteria at PCI RR do not address the importance of the research question, only the scientific validity of the question criterion (1A). Overall, I judge that your research question meets the test for overall scientific validity, even if other researchers may judge the replication to be unnecessary. So while I am interested to read your response to this concern from the reviewer, and a thorough response (including revision) is likely to make the final paper more impactful, I don't consider this particular issue is to be roadblock to eventual in-principle acceptance.

I hope you find the reviewers helpful and look forward to receiving your revised manuscript and response to the reviewers in due course.

Reviewed by , 09 Feb 2023

*Comments to the Author:

Many thanks for allowing me to read the Stage 1 Registered Report entitled “The impact of Empathy on Forgiveness: Replication and extensions of McCullough et al. (1997)'s Study 1”. The authors tried to replicate the classic MuCullough et al. (1997)'s Study and to extend the study by manipulating empathy. I approached it with great personal interest and greatly appreciated the efforts made for reproducibility and replicability in the psychological sciences. Overall, the paper is well written and well structured, but there are still some concerns for this paper.


While I strongly agree with the importance of McCullough's paper and the significant foundation it provides for the study and development of forgiveness. I doubt the contribution of replicating the study of McCullough et al. (1997). 


First, correlations or causal relationships between apology, empathy, and forgiveness have been tested by forgiveness researchers individually or together, and even meta-analyzed (e.g., Carlisle et al., 2012; Fehr et al., 2010; Konstam et al., 2001; Paleari et al., 2005). These efforts have to some extent replicated the work of McCullough et al. (1997), making a simply close replication does not seem necessary. I would rather suggest that the authors extend alternative meaningful models while partially replicating the study.


Second, as the field of forgiveness continues to evolve (based on McCullough and colleagues), the classification has become clearer, i.e., trait forgiveness (or so-called forgivingness; Brown, 2003) and state forgiveness (as in your case), and the term “forgiving” is mentioned less and less. I do understand that you use “forgiving” and “forgiveness” interchangeably through the manuscript, but this is not rigorous to the scientific development process. In addition, operationalizations of forgiveness measures have advanced, such as the Transgression-Related Interpersonal Motivation (TRIM), and the Enright Forgiveness Inventory (EFI) has been validated to have good internal consistency (Card, 2018). Indeed, the original source of the TRIM was Susan Wade Brown’s doctoral dissertation at Fuller Seminary (Wade, 1990). It may not be appropriate to replicate the study simply using measures from two decades ago.


Third, as you wrote in the manuscript on Page 11, McCullough et al. (1997) conceptualized interpersonal forgiving as “the set motivational changes whereby one becomes (a) less motivated to retaliate against an offending relationship partner, (b) more motivated to maintain estrangement from the offender, and (c) more motivated towards conciliation and goodwill for the offender, despite the offender’s hurtful actions”, such that the increased conciliation motivation and reduced avoidance and revenge motivation is defined in the nature of forgiveness. So there is little meaning to examining the associations between forgiveness and these motivations (hypothesis 2). Instead, it may be more interesting to investigate real behaviors/actions.


I am also concerned about testing the mediation model with a manipulated mediator (i.e., empathy). Given that mediation analysis is inherently causal, that is IV predicts Mediator and DV, M predicts DV. The original model of McCullough et al. (1997) was based on a correlation design and their limitations in causal inference are unquestionable. However, I don’t think a manipulated Mediator helps to establish the causality of the impact of perceived apology on empathy, let alone the mediation model in your Figure 10.


Other issues: 

The authors manipulated empathy with only one sentence “you were highly/not empathetic toward the person who had hurt you”. I would like to know if this manipulation is valid in previous studies, if so, please cite their work, if not, a pilot study to justify this manipulation in necessary.


The second line on Page 15 is unfinished.

Reviewed by , 13 Feb 2023

Reviewed by , 14 Feb 2023

Thank you for inviting me to review this pre-registration (replication study on the link between empathy and forgiveness in McCullough et al. (1997)'s Study 1.)


Overall, the process is explained thoroughly.

·         I agree with the authors that to date, there are currently no published independent direct replications of this article. McCullough et al. (1998), thus, i believe that extending their model by adding other variables such as commitment, the impact of the offense, and rumination, into predicting forgiveness would provide a decent contribution to the literature. 

·         The authors provide a sufficient justification for replicating the study, the research design is logical and addresses the coherence and credibility of the hypotheses

·         The introduction provides a good rationale and justification for the study, 

·         The sample size in the current study aimed to recruit 800, which is a well-powered sample size to predict this effect. 

·         The study procedures and analyses, and the experimental conditions are appropriate the scales also are appropriate. 


Best of luck with your research.


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