Students explore nuances of forgiveness in research lab

By Linda Nguyen
Staff Writer

“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”

Or so Ghandi said, anyway. One Baylor faculty member is exploring the topic of forgiveness in a research lab she conducts with the aid of undergraduate and graduate students.

Dr. Jo-Ann C. Tsang, an associate professor in the department of psychology and neuroscience, leads a social psychology research lab, which allows students to get hands-on experience in completing research involving forgiveness.

“The main focus of the lab is different types of forgiveness: interpersonal forgiveness and self-forgiveness,” Tsang said.

Tsang’s study of forgiveness falls under the field of social psychology and positive psychology. Tsang said she started studying positive psychology because that’s what her mentor studied, and then positive psychology gained popularity. Positive psychology is the study of how to make people feel like they’re living a fulfilled life instead of focusing on treating mental illnesses.

Tsang said forgiveness is an interesting concept for her to study because it’s relevant to everyone.

“No one is perfect, and if you are, people probably hate you for it,” Tsang said. “We have to be around people all the time. Forgiveness is important.”

Ten to 12 undergrads participate in the lab. The undergraduate students in Tsang’s lab are either volunteers or students enrolled in a Special Topics course. Tsang said she has more students in the lab than volunteers, who she said are mostly “former Special Topics students.”

In Tsang’s Special Topics course, students in the lab earn one hour of credit for three hours of work a week.

Lab activities include serving as experimenters for studies, entering data and weekly lab meetings.

Students enrolled in the lab range from sophomores to seniors and employ a variety of research methods, utilizing online surveys and computerized tasks for participants.

Tsang said she and her graduate students recruit undergraduate students from various classes who are interested in research. She also considers students who email her expressing interest in her research for inclusion in the lab.

“I don’t look at what year students are, just if they’re bright and learn quickly,” Tsang said. “I don’t require them to want to do social psychology as their career.”

Boerne senior Peter Rush is an undergraduate who has worked in Tsang’s lab for the past three semesters.

“I absolutely love it,” Rush said. “It’s as busy as you want it to be. You can do everything from statistics to running participants to helping design studies, so it’s been really cool.”

“Running a participant” occurs when a research assistant serves as the experimenter.

Rush said doing research has helped round out his knowledge of psychology.

“I think it’s added so much to my knowledge of psychology because it’s a lot more hands-on,” Rush said. “Instead of the theoretical stuff you do in class, it’s actually seeing all of that being practiced and used. I think getting that hands-on experience is very valuable.”

Three graduate students, Daniel Strassburger, Tom Carpenter and Robert Carlisle, also participate in the lab.

Graduate students in the psychology and neuroscience department work in research laboratories with a faculty mentor in order to refine their research skills and prepare to carry out a master’s thesis and/or a Ph.D. dissertation.

“Daniel Strassburger looks at feelings of awe and how it affects people’s behavior,” Tsang said. “Tom Carpenter looks at self-forgiveness and how feelings about self-esteem affect forgiveness.”

Carlisle, who is working on adissertation for his Ph.D., said he hopes to study how motivation applies to forgiveness.

Tsang serves as his faculty mentor. “I am looking at the motivation to forgive and how a change in the motivation to forgive effects different outcomes,” Carlisle said. The study is set to begin within the next month.

Carlisle has been working in Tsang’s lab since 2009. “She’s a good mentor,” Carlisle said. “She’s a lot of fun to work with, and she’s good at designing experiments and designing behavioral measures. I’ll come to her with an online survey and she’ll say, ‘How can we test that experimentally?’”

“Just because someone is not depressed, they aren’t necessarily happy,” Tsang said. “I want to feel like I am living a fulfilled life and it’s uplifting.” Positive psychology “has a lot of good application to real life,” she said.