If you want people to see you as trustworthy, try apologising for situations outside of your control such as the rain or a transport delay. That’s the implication of a new study by researchers at Harvard Business School and Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.
The most compelling evidence came from Alison Brooks and her colleagues’ fourth and final study in which a male actor approached 65 strangers (30 women) at a train station on a rainy day to ask to borrow their mobile phone. Crucially, for half of them he preceded his request with the superfluous apology: “I’m sorry about the rain!” The other half of the time he just came straight out with his request: “Can I borrow your cell phone?” The superfluous apology made a big difference. Forty-seven per cent of strangers offered their phone when the actor apologised for the rain first, compared with just nine per cent when there was no apology.
The field study followed three laboratory experiments. In the first, 178 students thought they were playing a financial game with a partner located in another room. They were told that on some rounds the computer would override their partner’s decisions. Later, if their “partner” (actually the whole thing was pre-programmed) apologised for a computer override, the participants tended to rate him or her as more trustworthy and were more generous towards him or her as a result. This despite the fact the apology was superfluous and for a situation beyond their (the partner’s) control.
In a second experiment, 177 adult participants (average age 28) watched a video of a stranger approaching a flight-delayed passenger at an airport to ask to borrow his/her mobile phone. The participants were to imagine they were the passenger and to decide how to act. If the stranger was shown apologising for the flight delay before making his request, the participants were more likely to say they’d agree to share their phone with him, as compared with a no-apology control condition, an initial conventional apology (“Hi, I’m sorry to interrupt”), or an initial neutral greeting (Hi, how are you?).
Another experiment involved 310 adult participants imagining they were heading in the rain to meet a seller of a second-hand iPod. If they were told the seller apologised for the rain first, the participants tended to rate him as more trustworthy, likeable and empathic, as compared with a no-apology condition, an initial traditional acknowledgement (“Hi there, oh it’s raining”) or an initial neutral greeting (“Hi there”).
“Across our studies, we identify significant benefits to apologising,” the researchers concluded. “Superfluous apologies represent a powerful and easy-to-use tool for social influence. Even in the absence of culpability, individuals can increase trust and liking by saying ‘I’m sorry’ – even if they are merely ‘sorry’ about the rain.”
How trustworthy are these results? The accumulated findings from several experiments help build a convincing case, but unfortunately the field study – which had the potential to provide the most persuasive evidence – is seriously flawed. The actor apologised for the rain then asked to borrow a phone, or in the comparison condition he just asked to borrow the phone. There was no proper control condition. This means we don’t know if the impact of the apology was specific to making an apology or merely an effect of uttering any kind of ice-breaker.
This is significant because past research shows how mindlessly we often act in social situations. For example, back in the late 70s, Ellen Langer and her colleagues found that people were just as likely to give way at a photo-copier if a queue-jumper uttered the nonsensical excuse “because I need to make copies” as when he claimed “because I’m in a rush.”
Alison Wood Brooks, Hengchen Dai, and Maurice E. Schweitzer (2013). I’m Sorry About the Rain! Superfluous Apologies Demonstrate Empathic Concern and Increase Trust. Social Psychological and Personality Science DOI: 10.1177/1948550613506122
update 19 Oct: extra details about control conditions that were used in two of the lab experiments have been added to this report.