Tuesday, 17 August 2010

How to apologise

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.'

ResearchBlogging.orgFehr, 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

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


Unknown said...

I wonder how complete these three categories are. How might you classify Steve Jobs's recent iPhone4 "nonpology"? It seems like a variation of the violated-norms apology, but with the twist that he simply declared a redefinition of the norms to enclose what would have otherwise required an apology: "phones don't always work, we want our customers to be happy"

Unknown said...

Tailoring an apology to fit the nature of the victim is like finding the right way to hide the fact you're sorry you got caught. Whatever happened to sincerity, or in the end is anything sincere?

Malcolm Sleath said...

Roy, one can be sincere in giving an apology within one's own value system, but if the issue is about making the other person feel there is value in the apology, it might be wise to consider theirs.

Saying, "This is what I value, but someone else might have different values", is not, of itself, insincere.

Unknown said...

Malcolm, the "increased victim forgiveness" phrase makes apologizing seem to serve our interests much more than those of the victim. Or is it the implication that any way we can get the victim to feel forgiving is in the end a good outcome for the victim? Even if you trick him into feeling it?
And he won't somehow suspect there's a bit of trickery involved?

Anonymous said...

Roy, when you give a gift with the object of pleasing another person. Do you tailor it to your taste or theirs? In the same way that tailoring your gift to a person's tastes is not "tricking them" into liking it, apologizing in a way that is tailored to their opinions is not necessarily "tricking them into forgiveness".

An apology, in a way, also has the object of pleasing a person. Howeverl in this case, the actiong of "pleasing" corresponds more to assuring them it was a mistake, clarifying that one empathizes with their sentiment (while not necessary agreeing with their opinion), and comforting them in the fact that one has the goal of not repeating the hurtful behavior, instead of corresponding to reflectiong one cares about pleasing their tastes.

There is also research on the effectiveness of apologies when the offense is obviously purposeful and it has been found that in apologies tend to be ineffective at leading to forgiveness of purposeful wrongdoing.

Unknown said...

Anonymous, you missed the point entirely. Sincere apologies are effective in helping the victim. Insincere ones are only meant to help the victimizer.

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