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Apposite apologies

2nd Jul 2018

Sorry, as Elton John memorably (and Blue not so memorably) sang, seems to be the hardest word. People and organisations very often miss out on chances to make amends by refusing to apologise, or worse still, offering a “non-apology”- saying that they’re sorry if people were offended, for example, instead of apologising for saying something offensive.

From the outside, it’s hard to see why people don’t just apologise properly, and economics textbooks have little to offer. A rational actor would apologise whether he was sorry or not – it doesn’t cost anything to apologise, and if it gets you out of trouble, why not?

Of course, anyone being apologised to by a rational economic actor would know that talk was cheap, and wouldn’t believe the apology. But in reality, it seems that people do respond positively to being apologised to. The Wharton School psychologist Maurice Schweitzer and colleagues found that when trust is damaged, apologies play a role in repairing it, in combination with other trustworthy acts. Peter Kim and colleagues go one step further, showing that the apology itself, under the right circumstances, can help restore trust.

Most interesting of all, Alison Wood Brooks studied “superfluous” apologies. An apology is superfluous if the thing being apologised for is outside of the control of the person apologising (“I’m sorry that your train has been delayed”). Wood Brooks find that these apologies actually substantially increase people’s trust for the apologiser – seemingly because they act as a signal of empathy for the suffering of others. This might explain locals’ constant refrain to visitors to London – “I’m sorry about the weather”.

If apologies are effective as well as costless, why don’t we do it more often? This area is an interestingly under-researched part of the equation, but we might take some insight from a combination of behavioural science and folk wisdom. Our parents used to say, when we were in the wrong, that “If you were sorry, you wouldn’t have done it”. If we consider this from after the fact, our natural tendency to post-hoc justification, combined with some cognitive dissonance, could change this into “If I was going to be sorry I wouldn’t have done it, I have done it, and therefore must not be sorry” – making us weave a story that we were, in fact, behaving properly and have no need to apologise.

This defensive position is understandable, but it may be that we’d all be better off – victims and guilty parties alike – if we were to apologise more, as both could benefit from the resolution and the increased trust. If we want to get into the habit of apologising more, Schweizter, Wood Brooks and Adam Galinsky, have a useful guide.

But beware – apologies won’t always work. Across all of the research we’ve talked about here, there is one consistent finding about the limitations of apologies. When the apologiser is guilty not for reasons of competence, but for moral reasons, trust is so badly damaged that the apology itself cannot remake lost ground. If you’ve done the wrong thing for the wrong reasons, you’re going to need to work harder to get out of trouble.

Sorry about that.