Want people to trust you? Try apologising for the rain

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.”

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

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.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

19 thoughts on “Want people to trust you? Try apologising for the rain”

  1. Hmm… are they really comparing like for like here? Shouldn't they have had a neutral preliminary sentence as the control. Is it apologising that's making the difference or simply engaging in a brief bit of socially lubricating interchange that matter? Would the students in the experiment also have felt more positively about someone who'd simply engaged with them by, say, mentioning last night's game? Simply doing apologising vs. absence of evidence seems like an insufficient control to support their argument.

  2. I agree w/ Jack's comment. What does apologizing have to do w/ anything in this situation? The answer to my question must be proven.

  3. Also, try to smile and make eye contact with people. And ask them how they are. If they ask you how you are then say that you're fine. Usual kind of stuff. If somebody knocks you with an umbrella, apologise. We sacrifice the truth on small occasions so that we can discover more truth in the long run. It's also partly compensating for errors and self-deceit — e.g. it *might* have been you that brushed the other person with your umbrella

  4. Well, it is in Social Psychological and Personality Science, so you have to let things like correct experiment design slide.

  5. All these tests, especially the very first one, have a fatal flaw. There are countlessly many other reasons that could have led to the results indicated above, that does NOT imply that apologizing is the cause.
    I belive, in all cases, the reason why the person was more willing to help (lend a cell phone) was simply because they had, in some way, had contact with the tester. Because really, once you've seen someone saying something to you (anything not hateful), they're really not that much of a stranger to you, and thus you are more likely to trust them.

  6. Sorry for the flaws in this experiment.

    Here's what I'd recommend for anyone wanting to find the actual facts (or desired facts): just try this yourself when you have a chance to test it on some unsuspecting target. Next time you hit the streets, walk up to a stranger and execute the experiment (in the manner you find convincing), then make your own conclusions after a reasonable number of such tests.

    This is a “social” experiment, so don't just wait for results, let's get out and run the experiment…

    Again, sorry for the flaws in this experiment.

  7. Please note: two of the three lab experiments did have various control conditions. I've added in details of these in the blog post. Sorry for not including that information previously. It is the field study that I felt lacked an adequate control condition because it compared “apology for the rain + cell phone request” with “cell phone request” and it's not clear that it's specifically an apology that made all the difference or just any kind of ice-breaker. The lab studies suggest it is is specifically a superfluous apology (ie. for something beyond your control) that is persuasive, but the lab studies obviously do not have the ecological validity of a field study. That's why it's a shame that suitable comparison conditions were not used in the field study. That would have made the findings more convincing.

  8. Rene's culture comment is interesting and possibly relevant here in the UK as 1) it rains much of the time and 2) Brits tend to apologise for everything as a default conversational opener. Many research questions loom as a result of these cultural factors.

  9. These researchers are kind of lazy and incompetent. Like my husband that I beat up. Lisa Q

Comments are closed.