By Laurel White
Decades of pioneering work on the vast personal and social benefits of forgiveness — from reducing individuals’ anxiety and aggression to fostering better cross-cultural communication amid political conflict — have earned UW-Madison’s Robert Enright one of psychology’s rarest and highest lifetime achievement awards.
Enright’s scientific study of forgiveness has had a “game-changing impact on the field of psychology,” according to the American Psychological Foundation. The foundation, an arm of the American Psychological Association, awarded Enright the 2022 American Psychological Foundation Gold Medal Award for Impact in Psychology. The award has previously gone to giants in the field of psychology that include Evelyn Hooker, whose work prompted the removal of homosexuality from the industry manual of mental health disorders, and David Barlow, who developed new methods of treating anxiety that are now staples of mental health care around the world.
“I am not the game-changer,” said Enright, who holds the Aristotelian Professorship in Forgiveness Science with the School of Education’s Department of Educational Psychology. “Forgiveness is just that.”
Enright, who has been a faculty member at UW-Madison since 1978, wrote the first scientific journal article on person-to-person forgiveness and the first cross-cultural studies of interpersonal forgiveness. Over the past four decades, his work has produced widely-used models for forgiveness therapy and school curriculum guides that have been used in at least 30 countries. He is a five-time nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, with nominations from more than a dozen individuals and entities in the United States and abroad.
He is also the founder of the International Forgiveness Institute, a nonprofit organization based in Madison that has worked to expand the reach of forgiveness research since 1994.
James Wollack, chair of the Department of Educational Psychology, lauded Enright as a true “pioneer” in his field.
“Bob’s work has directly led to improved mental, emotional, and physical health outcomes for millions —if not tens of millions — of individuals participating in research studies and therapeutic and educational programs worldwide,” Wollack said. “His focus has been on the very most vulnerable populations — war-ravaged communities and with those suffering from personal trauma — and has reached citizens all over the globe. Bob is truly a trailblazer, and his work is one of the finest examples of the Wisconsin Idea that we have seen.”
Wollack also noted Enright has previously been awarded three of the highest awards granted at UW-Madison: the Hilldale Award for excellence in research, teaching, and service, the WARF Named Professorship, and the Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching Award.
Enright said his initial scholarly work on forgiveness was rebuffed by some peers as “too weak or irrelevant for scientific investigation.”
“Now there are thousands of researchers studying forgiveness and many thousands of mental health professionals incorporating forgiveness therapy into their practices,” he said. “I am so glad I persevered, and now I encourage those just beginning their careers to persevere if they find a topic, no matter what the critics say, that seems important enough to improve the human condition.”