Self-control during adolescence predicts the tendency to forgive others in adulthood, study finds

By Eric Dolan

“I am interested in the predictive power of personality change. Research has consistently demonstrated that personality traits such as conscientiousness or trait self-control predict important life outcomes including education, work and relationship success, well-being, health, and longevity,” explained study author Mathias Allemand, an assistant professor at the University of Zurich.

“Moreover, there is accumulating empirical evidence that personality traits can change and do change across the entire lifespan, and that change vary across individuals. Therefore, it is exciting to investigate whether changes in personality predict important life outcomes beyond the level of personality traits. I am also interested in the developmental antecedents of adult forgivingness.”

“The tendency or willingness to forgive others, a trait-like characteristic, is an important construct in the context of living together in social relationships and in society because it contributes to the maintenance of important relationships and is associated with individual and social well-being. We already know from cross-sectional work that higher self-control is associated with higher forgivingness. But until now, it has never been investigated whether change in self-control is related to forgiveness in the long term.”

For their study, Allemand and his colleagues examined data from 1,350 participants from the German LifE-Study.

Self-control was assessed five times during adolescence: at the age of 12 years, 13 years, 14 years, 15 years, and 16 years. “Some adolescents started with low scores in self-control and then showed an increase. For others, self-control was higher in early adolescence and continued to increase as youth progressed. Finally, others changed little or even showed a decrease in self-control,” Allemand noted.

When the participants were 45 years old, they completed a follow-up assessment that included a measure of forgiveness.

The researchers found that self-control in adolescence was positively related to the tendency to forgive others in middle adulthood. In other words, participants who disagreed with statements such as “I feel that I have a quite weak will” and “I often give up at the first sign of difficulty” in adolescence were more likely to agree with statements such as “I tend to get over it quickly when someone hurts my feelings” and “When people wrong me, my approach is just to forgive and forget” at age 45.

“We found that changes in self-control during the adolescent years matter for the tendency or willingness to forgive others in midlife,” Allemand told PsyPost. “Higher self-control early in adolescence and increases during adolescence were associated with a higher willingness to forgive others. At the same time, lower scores and decreases in self-control were associated with a lower willingness to forgive.”

The researchers controlled for factors such as gender, socioeconomic status, and conduct problems in adolescence. But the study, like al research, includes some limitations.

“Because self-control in adolescence and forgivingness in midlife were assessed using only self-reports, future research is needed that uses a multimethod approach, such as observer reports of self-control and behavioral observation of the tendency to forgive others,” Allemand explained.

“Another limitation of our study was that forgivingness was only assessed in midlife but not in earlier periods of the lifespan. That is, we have no information on the extent to which differences in willingness to forgive were already present in adolescence and how they develop during adolescence. But because of the study’s unique longitudinal design, covering more than 30 years, we cannot just quickly do a follow-up study with such a long time interval and even more assessments to replicate the results.”

“However, the fundamental question of whether changes in personality can predict important outcomes beyond level remains relevant to future research,” Allemand continued. “Although adolescence is an important developmental window to examine developmental processes that may have implications into adulthood, it would also be important to study the long-term effects of developmental processes in other periods of the lifespan: How do personality changes in middle adulthood contribute to successful aging? What are the developmental antecedents of an active and healthy aging?”

The study, “Self-Control in Adolescence Predicts Forgivingness in Middle Adulthood“, was authored by Mathias Allemand, Andrea E. Grünenfelder-Steiger, Helmut A. Fend, and Patrick L. Hill.

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