Apologies aren't as good as people imagine they'll be

January 18, 2011

We all want an apology when someone does us wrong. But a new study, published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, finds that people aren't very good at predicting how much they'll value an apology.

Apologies have been in the news a lot the last few years in the context of the , says David De Cremer of Erasmus University in the Netherlands. He cowrote the study with Chris Reinders Folmer of Erasmus University and Madan M. Pillutla of London Business School. "Banks didn't want to apologize 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 apologize, the public didn't seem to feel any better. "We wondered, what was the real value of an apology?"

De Cremer and his colleagues used an experiment to examine how people think about apologies. Volunteers sat at a computer and were given 10 euros to either keep or give to a partner, with whom they communicated via computer. The was tripled so that the partner received 30 euros. Then the partner could choose how much to give back—but he or she only gave back five euros. Some of the volunteers were given an apology for this cheap offer, while others were told to imagine they'd been given an apology.

The people who imagined an apology valued it more than people who actually received an apology. This suggests that people are pretty poor forecasters when it comes down to what is needed to resolve conflicts. Although they want an apology and thus rate it as highly valuable, the actual apology is less satisfying than predicted.

"I think an apology is a first step in the reconciliation process," De Cremer says. But "you need to show that you will do something else." He and his authors speculate that, because people imagine that apologies will make them feel better than they do, an might actually be better at convincing outside observers that the wrongdoer feels bad than actually making the wronged party feel better.

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3 / 5 (2) Jan 18, 2011
People actually get paid for doing research like this?

I think Netherlands tax-payers are owed an apology, but that would not refund the money wasted. Case in point.
5 / 5 (1) Jan 19, 2011
Apologies are a result of us being social animals. Therefore, some arise from, and address parts of our brain that are ancient.

There are three kinds of apologies. They are, in historical order:

The first one is by body language, and it has to be so immediate that it is perceived as intuitive, almost reflexive, definitely not the result of a conscious choice. It is specifically meant to show that an action you just did, was absolutely not meant to challenge his superiority, nor to trespass upon his area, be it physical or abstract.

The second is uttered when you have hurt your wife, child or dog. When you notice that they are hurt, you feel compassion for their pain, and try to console them.

The third is by rational choice. You see that you have no other choice if you want to stay healthy and prosper. Logically, it's not a real apology, but a strategy.

Demanding an apology equals demanding public humiliation, which never is totally satisfactory, unless you're perverted.
5 / 5 (1) Jan 19, 2011
The above might sound like I'm sexist! Sorry, and all. (Heh, apologizing here! Proves that gender-equality bigots and feminists are the Man today.)

The apologies mechanism got born long before political correctness was invented, so no wonder it is, er, old fashioned. And androcentric.

The only reason it exists is to avoid undue waste of energy and bloodshed. It is to avoid accidental disturbances when all agree on the pecking order.

A reason why the apology doesn't soothe the "plaintiff" is that a delayed apology invariably becomes one received by coercion. Therefore it is not actually an apology, but a deliberated action, and the plaintiff knows it, too. Further, even if he didn't know it, a delayed apology doesn't reach the right place in our ancient brain (because the window is only open for a fraction of a second for #1 type apology), it only reaches the "rational", or youngest part of the brain. In other words, the apology never reaches the part of the brain that "needs it".

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