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The colorful pages of Dr. Suess’ Horton Hears a Who tell the story of an elephant who discovers Whoville on a tiny planet located on a speck of dust. The oft repeated mantra, “A person is a person no matter how small,” eventually persuades the animals who make fun of him to save even the ones they cannot see.  

The book is one of several stories that lay a foundation for learning forgiveness in a classroom. The curriculum was designed and tested by psychologists Bob Enright and Jiahe Wang Xu in countries around the world. The lesson: people have worth. No matter where they are or what they do or how they live. Future lessons continue building on that basis, adding in the concept of agape love, an ancient moral virtue in which a person offers another unconditional goodness, even at a cost to themselves.

Researchers wanted to see if the curriculum would be impactful in areas with intractable conflict. For example, can children in Northern Ireland, which experienced a 30-year ethnonationalist conflict during their parents’ childhoods, learn moral virtues which can aid in healing from intergenerational traumas? 

“A lot of these conflicts could be inherited, just as our genetic make-up can be influenced by the environment and can pass these traits down to the next generation,"

Wang Xu said. 

As a parent and psychologist, Wang Xu particularly wanted to know how to introduce agape love, which serves others even when it’s costly to do so. 

Of course, they’re not involved in politics yet, but if children gain understanding and skills early, how will it change their social relationships and their mental health? “It’s an opportunity to break the cycle of resentment,” she said.

Wang Xu, who began her ambitious doctoral research under the pioneering forgiveness scholar Bob Enright, tested the curriculum with more than 700 fifth grade students in Northern Ireland, Taiwan, and Israel. During the 2021-2022 school year, teachers taught an existing curriculum from the Forgiveness Institute that was modified to include agape love. 

She expected to see all cultures grow in hope and self-esteem—and a drop in anger and depression—after completing the forgiveness curriculum. But instead, she found variation, some of which she attributes to cultural differences.

Fifth graders took surveys on many positive and negative attributes, but notably on agape love, which has never been tested before. 

Measuring philosophical wisdom

Agape love, which comes from the Greek language, became the defining feature of Wang Xu’s study because love is the highest stage of forgiveness in Enright’s model. Forgiveness is extending unconditional love to someone who offended you regardless of the injustice, she said. 

They turned to Aristotle because “he is probably the premier person in the world for understanding moral virtues deeply,” said Enright. He defined agape love as serving others for their sake even when it is painful or costly to do so. 

To measure Aristotle’s definition, they designed a new psychological test. In a recent paper, they show how agape love is different from existing tests, which define love in other ways. The same thing is true of forgiveness. Researchers have defined moral attributes in ways that do not align with the insights of moral philosophers. “There is a lot of research out there that is philosophically flawed,” said Enright.

“It is radically unusual to bring Aristotle into any conversation with psychology,” he said. Due to specialization in academia, the fields of psychology and philosophy don’t speak to each other. “You probably won’t see it in 99 percent of articles on psychology.” 

He feels this has reduced the value of psychology. If a scale doesn’t align with the insights gleaned by philosophy, what is even being measured? he asked.

“When [psychologists] build a scale, we say: ‘what is the moral virtue in its totality?’” said Enright. Which is, of course, exactly what philosophers throughout history have already done, thus, supporting his view that the work should build from philosophy. 

The influence of culture?

Equipped with a new scale rooted in Aristotle, Wang Xu and Enright tested students on agape love alongside other attributes previously defined for measurement by other psychologists. 

In Northern Ireland and Israel, students who completed the course controlled their anger better. Irish students also experienced less depression. Taiwanese students only experienced less depression but not anger. 

Anger control is important because other research shows that anger leads to increased violence and aggression, academic difficulty, and depression

“My personal interpretation is that [Taiwanese students] come from more of a collectivist cultural background,” said Wang Xu, leading to more inward emotional expression which manifests as depression rather than anger. In contrast, Northern Ireland is more individualistic, while Israel may be mixed, she observed. 

Growth in positive attributes was not obvious. Only students in Israel experienced an increase in hope. 

One possibility is that the study—due to its brief timeline—did not capture how students may grow in positive virtues over time, said Wang Xu. The students were tested after they completed the curriculum, but researchers don’t have the ability to follow them long term. 

In the future, they’d like to see the results replicated in other countries, particularly other collectivist cultures in Asia, as well as in other age groups. “I really want to bring it to my own country,” said Wang Xu, who grew up in China and studied in Hong Kong. Researchers from Korea, Pakistan, and Iran, as well as several African countries, are also interested. 

Breaking the cycle

An additional benefit of a school curriculum is that it can have immediate impacts on parents and teachers. “The positive effect will not only be when [the children] grow up,” said Wang Xu. She recalls a student’s mother who began a conversation with her ex-partner because of the child’s experience

There’s also evidence of its impact. Wang Xu and Enright tested teachers in Northern Ireland, Taiwan and Israel. Teachers grew in all positive attributes—agape love, forgiveness, hope, and self-esteem—and declined in depression and anger. “In teaching, they applied it informally to themselves,” said Enright. 

Also important, like the teachers, students were never told they had to forgive anyone. “There’s no pressure. We’re not hovering over the students and saying you’d better forgive if you want an A,” said Enright. 

Wang Xu also noted that particularly with children, who are more rigid in their thinking compared to adults, explaining forgiveness without justice could lead to situations where offenders are let off the hook. Thus, children are taught that one can seek justice while forgiving.

Enright envisions these children finding a way to the peace that eluded their great-great grandparents. But “they aren’t going to do that unless their minds are reoriented to see the humanity in the other,” he said. Like Horton, the curriculum breaks down stereotypes about the inhumanity of another person. 

“When you show them the softness of life, they gravitate toward that without pressure. When you don’t force it, people embrace it,” said Enright. “These kinds of higher moral virtues are attractive to people when you give them a chance.”