Brains trust: Three warnings from psychologists about saying sorry

Brains trust: Three warnings from psychologists about saying sorry

Sorry seems to be the hardest word, crooned Elton John 37 years ago.

Usually, we think this is because of pride. But navigating apologies effectively isn’t simply a matter of saying the words and meaning them.

Psychologists say a sincere apology has three stages:

  • An admission of regretful guilt
  • A clear ‘I’m sorry’ statement
  • A request for forgiveness

But even if you are sincere, and you follow the above, you might not patch things up successfully. That’s because it’s not your perception of your apology that matters. It’s the other person’s; the one you’ve wronged.

Luckily for us, psychologists in the past decade or so have spent a fair amount of time looking at what does and doesn’t make an apology successfully. It varies across cultures, but in the West, here’s some of what they found.

1) Fools rush in

Usually, we’re told to apologise quickly when we’re in the wrong. But research reveals we’re better off waiting, at least for a little while.

C Frantz and C Benningson in 2001 published a paper on the topic in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

Frantz and Benningson first asked people to describe recent conflicts in which they’d received an apology. They found that in situations where an apology wasn’t offered right away, the wronged party was more satisfied.

The psychologists then randomly assigned participants one of three written accounts of a conflict situation. In the accounts, someone provided an apology at the start or the end of the conversation, or didn’t apologise at all.

The later apology was perceived as the most effective.

It’s hard to draw causal links from the study, but the researchers thought it was because both parties had a chance to be heard and understood when apologies were offered later in the conflict.

So really, apologies are most effective when the person you’ve wronged thinks you know what you’re apologising for, and when they’ve had a bit of a chance to tell you what an idiot you’ve been.

2) Don’t be surprised if an apology on its own isn’t enough

When people are wronged, they want an apology. But recent research shows that when people do get an apology, they don’t value it as much as they thought they would.

An interesting study was published last year by psychologists David De Cremer and Chris Reinders Folmer of Erasmus University in The Netherlands, and Madan M. Pillutla from the London Business School.

In the midst of the GFC, many wanted banks to apologise for causing the crisis. “Banks didn’t want to apologise because they didn’t feel guilty, but in the public eye, banks were guilty,” De Cremer says. But even when some banks and CEOs did apologise, the public didn’t seem to feel any better. “We wondered, what was the real value of an apology?”


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