Whether it’s a company like BP apologising for causing environmental catastrophe or a political leader expressing regret for her country’s prior misdemeanours, it seems there’s barely a day goes by without the media watching hawkishly to find out just how the contrite words will be delivered and what effect they’ll have on the aggrieved.
Surprisingly, psychology has, until now, paid little attention to what makes for an effective apology. Past studies have tended to focus instead simply on whether an apology was given or it wasn’t. Now Ryan Fehr and Michele Gelfand at the University of Maryland have drawn on research in other disciplines, including sociology and law, to explore the idea that apologies come in three forms and that their impact varies according to the character of the victim.
The three apology types or components are: compensation (e.g. I’m sorry I broke your window, I’ll pay to have it repaired); empathy (e.g. I’m sorry I slept with your best friend, you must feel like you can’t trust either of us ever again); and acknowledgement of violated rules/norms (e.g. I’m sorry I advised the CIA how to torture people, I’ve broken our profession’s pledge to do no harm).
Fehr and Gelfand’s hypothesis was that the effectiveness of these different styles of apology depends on how the aggrieved person sees themselves (known as ‘self-construal’ in the psychological jargon). To test this, the researchers measured the way that 175 undergrad students see themselves and then had them rate different forms of apology. In a follow-up study, 171 more undergrads reported how they see themselves and then they rated their forgiveness of a fictional student who offered different forms of apology after accidentally wiping her friend’s laptop hard-drive.
The researchers found that a focus on compensation was most appreciated by people who are more individualistic (e.g. those who agree with statements like ‘I have a strong need to know how I stand in comparison to my classmates or coworkers’); that empathy-based apologies are judged more effective by people who see themselves in terms of their relations with others (e.g. they agree with statements like ‘Caring deeply about another person such as a close friend is very important to me’); and finally, that the rule violation kind of apology was deemed most effective by people who see themselves as part of a larger group or collective (e.g. they agree with ‘I feel great pride when my team or work group does well’ and similar statements). These patterns held regardless of the severity of the misdemeanour, as tested by using different versions of the disk-wipe scenario in which either an hour’s or several weeks’ worth of data were lost.
The message, the researchers said, is that when apologising you should consider your audience. ‘This need to meta-cognize about what a victim is looking for in an apology is particularly important when victims’ and offenders’ worldviews diverge,’ they added. Of course, if in doubt about the character of your victim or victims, the researchers said that ‘detailed apologies with multiple components are in general more likely to touch upon what is important to a victim than brief, perfunctory apologies. Offenders should therefore offer apologies with multiple components whenever possible.’
Fehr and Gelfand acknowledge their study has limitations, including their reliance on participants imagining fictional scenarios – future research should test out these ideas in the real world. ‘By integrating theories of self-construal and apology,’ they concluded, ‘the current study has shown how the tailoring of apologies to individuals’ self-construals can result in increased victim forgiveness.’
Fehr, R., & Gelfand, M. (2010). When apologies work: How matching apology components to victims’ self-construals facilitates forgiveness. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 113 (1), 37-50 DOI: 10.1016/j.obhdp.2010.04.002