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Apologies Fail to Live Up to Our Expectations

A new study finds we tend to overestimate the healing power of an apology



iStockphoto/Yuri_Arcus

Bank chiefs, oil company executives and louche politicians seem as allergic to admitting guilt as the public is eager to extract contritions from them. If sometimes we seem to scrutinize people more for their failure to say, "I'm sorry," than for the transgressions themselves, it is partly due to the cultural wisdom that an apology is the first step in mending a broken relationship.

But how far does an apology really go in smoothing things over? Not as far as people think, suggests new research published in the January issue of Psychological Science.

"The expectations for an apology to make us feel better and even forget about the bad things that have happened are overestimated," says study co-author David De Cremer of the Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University. After having a wrong committed against them people who imagined receiving an apology were more satisfied than people who actually got one, the study found.

"In light of fraud cases, the financial crisis, the moral escalation that people seem to witness in contemporary society, there is a cry for apologies, such that we seem to live in an apology culture," De Cremer says.

But our collective desire for apologies may not be a great indicator of their effect once delivered.  Studies have shown that people are poor forecasters of their emotional responses to life and tend to overestimate future reactions to both positive and negative situations. (This is to say nothing of estimations of our altruistic behavior— also exaggerated.) A similar prediction error skews our perception of apologies.

To simulate betrayals of trust, the researchers set up games and rigged them. Participants were given €10 to either keep or transfer in whole to a partner, in which case, participants were told, the amount would be tripled and their partner would decide how to split the total. Once the transfers took place, participants were informed that their partners had decided to return only €5. Each participant then received a written apology in which his or her partner expressed remorse and acknowledged responsibility for the unfair trade. For comparison another group of participants played the trust game to the same outcome but were asked to imagine receiving an apology. A third group was asked to imagine the entire scenario, transgression and apology.

In their post-game analysis, participants who imagined the apology, regardless of whether the transgression was real or imagined, rated the apology as more "valuable" and "reconciling" than did participants who actually received one.

The researchers then asked whether we also overestimate our ability to trust our transgressors after accepting their apologies. In a follow-up study the same participants repeated the game with the same stingy but remorseful partners, this time getting to choose how much of the initial €10 to transfer. "Because participants were exploited in the first game, this amount is a behavioral measure of trust restoration," the authors explained in their paper. Participants imagining the entire scenario predicted they would transfer on average €5.20. Those who actually received an apology in the first game, however, were less trusting of their partners the second time around, handing over an average of €3.31.

The authors acknowledge that the value of apologies beyond laboratory settings are influenced by many more factors than those considered in the study, including the perceived sincerity of the apology and whether it is followed by tangible compensation for the transgression.

If apologies are not inherently as valuable as we believe, they are still effective in restoring social order because they trigger a highly scripted reconciliation process. Once an apology is offered, the pressure is then on "victims" to accept and move on. "Ironically, the failure to accept an apology transforms the victim into the transgressor," the authors wrote. They point out that children, less aware of social norms, often fail to graciously accept a repentance.

And an apology does not necessarily signal remorse, adds co-author Madan Pillutla of the London Business School. "Sometimes apologies are offered not to make amends with victims but to signal to an external audience that one is a good person." So, it's a tricky situation then, when your victim is in the audience.

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