Motivation and emotion/Book/2013/Saying sorry

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Saying sorry:
The power of apology - what is the emotional effect of saying sorry?

Overview[edit | edit source]

There are different types of apologies and reactions to apologies. Let’s look at these two examples:

  1. A guy is driving his car full of his friends on a rainy evening. As he turns a slippery corner, the car slides and hits a tree killing two of his friends. At his trial, the guy sobs uncontrollably, turns to his friend’s families, apologises, and tells them that he didn’t mean to kill his friends.
  2. A guy is convicted of sexually abusing his young daughter for over seven years. After he is sentenced to jail time, he turns to his daughter and apologises for causing on-going suffering whilst admitting he didn’t know what he was doing was wrong.

Throughout this chapter we will explore the answers to the following questions: do both of these scenarios represent an apology? Why or why not? Is one more effective than the other? And how are these apologies received from the public and the victims?

What is an apology?[edit | edit source]

At its best, an apology is an expression of sincere personal dislike for one's own actions, rather than a form of inflammatory rhetoric or empty emotional coercion. An apology is significant for many different reasons (Schneider, 2000). In nearly all cases, the decision to apologise for a wrong-doing is decided by the person that committed it (i.e. the out-group, perpetrator or transgressor). The apology itself is often a verbal acknowledgement that recognises that a person did something wrong towards the victim. They are accepting responsibility for their actions towards the other person. In order for the apology to be considered sincere, the offender must demonstrate vulnerability by being visibly affected (e.g. crying) and through offering an apology without defence (or an excuse). However, the nature of the apology depends on the nature of the injury inflicted on the victim. For example, if someone is humiliated by the offender, then the nature of the apology would be to restore self-respect to the victim.

The power of an apology[edit | edit source]

An apology is an immensely powerful act. The act of saying “sorry” is ultimately motivated by the offender’s emotions. It conveys to the victim (and others) that the offender isn’t a bad person, they have empathy, and have morals (Hareli & Eiskouits, 2006). Often the offender will experience a range of emotions before, during and after making the apology. According to Mutter (2012), there are five stages an offender is faced with when seeking forgiveness from their victim: confrontation, confession, forgiveness, restitution, and reconciliation. The forgiveness-seeking behaviour can be identified through obvious acknowledgement, non-verbal acknowledgement, explanation, and in some cases, compensation. The apology relies on external factors such as the closeness of the relationship, the severity of the offence, the presence of un-forgiveness (from the victim), consideration in regards to the injury inflicted on the victim, and empathy.

When confronted with the situation, it is not unusual for the offender to first experience denial. This behaviour stems from denying that the event occurred, denying or devaluing the other person’s perspective, down-playing the significance of the event, or blame the victim for what happened. At this stage, the offender is pre-contemplative and is considering apologising to the victim. In the next phase, contemplation, the offender may have anxiety or feelings of shame. The anxiety is a reflection of the possibility of punishment or other consequences as a result of the offence. Shame is the feeling of disgrace which may prevent the offender from acting in a particular way. The next phase, discretion and restitution, happens once the apology has occurred. In order for the victim to forgive the offender, there must be a level of trustworthiness and discretion. The final phase of an apology is reconciliation. In this phase the offender is forgiven and the relationship can be restored. However, reconciliation and forgiveness are not essential outcomes of an apology.

An apology also has a major impact on the victim (Harvard Mental Health Letter, 2008). The apology validates the victim’s claims that the event occurred and puts the fault of the incident on the offender. By doing this, the victim’s sense of dignity and power can be restored. The more convincing the apology is the more sympathy is given from the public and the victim. However, if the victim rejects the apology, it is likely that the victim will run the risk of gaining negative attributes. This results in an added pressure on the victim to accept the apology. According to Bennett and Dewberry (1994) it is very rare that an apology is rejected out-right.

Failing to apologise[edit | edit source]

So what happens when a person fails to apologise? An apology is a sign that a person is ready to admit fault and perhaps make amends with the victim. Apologies are used as a tool to deescalate situations, whilst not saying sorry is a cue for escalating the situation further (Thomas & Millar, 2008). Immediately after a person has apologised, the offender is often seen in a positive light (where they have an image of being a good person) and their image somewhat restored. Depending on the severity of the event which occurred, the result of an apology can help to reduce anger and other negative emotions. This anger tends to increase if the offender misses the opportunity to apologise to the victim.

Children’s understanding of apologies[edit | edit source]

A study by Smith, Diyu and Harris (2010) looked at how children interpreted apologies and emotions. Children as young as two were able to grasp the concept of an apology when they were led to believe they had broken an object. By the age of four, children were able to understand the basic implications of an apology and by the age of eight had full comprehension. The children were able to see that a person that did not get an apology seemed far more upset than the participant which did receive an apology. Younger children who were encouraged by an adult to verbally apologise were less able to connect the words “I’m sorry” to the actual feelings of remorse. If they did feel bad in association with the apology, it was more likely to be out of fear of punishment.

Learning how to say sorry[edit | edit source]

I'm sorry.png

The Harvard Mental Health Letter (2008) offers these simple steps for a person to make a genuine apology:

Acknowledge the offense[edit | edit source]

It is important that the offender take responsibility for the event which took place and offer genuine remorse.

Explain what happened[edit | edit source]

This is difficult as the offender needs to avoid making excuses for what happened. It may even be necessary to add “there is no excuse for what I did.”

Express remorse[edit | edit source]

The offender must show vulnerability and genuinely believe what they did was wrong. It is often better to fully explain the regret, shame, humiliation or other feelings.

Offer to make amends[edit | edit source]

In order to move towards reconciliation it is recommended that the offender try their best to be sensitive to the situation. In some cases making amends may involve a settlement or the offer of compensation to the victim.

Infrahumanisation and its effect on forgiveness[edit | edit source]

Social Identity Theory suggests that membership within a group is fundamental to constructing a person's sense of self and provides the basis for how they interact with others. The outcome of being in these groups often result in the in-group members attributing positive characteristics to themselves and negative characteristics to the out-group (Wohl, Hornsey & Bennett, 2012).

One manifestation of the social identity theory is the phenomenon of infrahumanisation. This is the belief that the in-group is more able to experience complex human emotions in comparison to the out-group. As a result, in-groups may see themselves as being able to process emotions such as sorrow, but only see the out-group as able to process animalistic emotions, such as anger.

This concept becomes crucial to understanding apologies and forgiveness. It is important that people see the humanity in out-groups in order to aid forgiveness. If the out-group is seen as inhuman, then there is a reduced ability for forgiveness as it reduces empathy. For example, in a scenario of sexual assault, there may be an increased chance of forgiveness if the victim understands the person’s past. This understanding of the offender increases empathy, understanding, and makes the offender seem less like a predator (and more like a human).

The use of perspective-taking in aiding conflict between Christians and LBGT members[edit | edit source]

Christians protest against homosexuality.

Across the world there is an increasing focus on the conflicts between Christians and members of the lesbian, bisexual, gay and transsexual (LBGT) community. This conflict arises when members of the LBGT community feel criticised by Christians (Jordan, Worthington, & Sutton, 2013). There is an increasing amount of Christian groups in the news, protesting against the LBGT community, same sex marriages, and prejudices against those who identify as a LBGT group member. This has resulted in negative attitudes towards Christians (including hate, discrimination, or perceived judgement based on their identity).

In many religious and cultural aspects, apologies are important. Perspective-taking involves taking the perspective of the other group in order to increase empathy and promote forgiveness. It can also sometimes release the negative emotions and replace them with positive ones. However, this occasionally has the opposite effect where taking the perspective of the other group enhances the anger and hostility towards them. Often in order to understand the other group’s perspective it requires the in-group to use stereotypes in order to determine thoughts and feelings. This can ultimately lead to further prejudice, bias, and discrimination. All of these factors can either enhance the chances of forgiveness following an apology or possibly increase the difference between the two groups.

An apology to the stolen generation[edit | edit source]

Kevin Rudd apologises to stolen generation.

In 2008, the Prime Minister of Australia, Kevin Rudd, offered a formal apology to the indigenous Australians for the laws and policies of previous governments. These policies enforced the removal of many indigenous Australians from their families between 1910 and 1970 (Philpot, Balvain, Mellor, & Bretherton, 2013). In his speech, he asked for the apology to be accepted as part of Australia’s healing process and as the first step towards reconciliation.

The apology gave rise to national pride and many indigenous Australians reflected on the event as provoking positive emotions. However there were a few issues of concern. Some thought that the apology was insincere, as it lacked any follow up actions. They also suggested that the apology should have been directed to the past wrong-doings and on-going discrimination of all indigenous Australians, not just the stolen generation. Other concerns included: the late timing of the apology, how polished the speech was(as it came across insincere), and how the Prime Minister chose to communicate the apology in a westernised way (failing to demonstrate respect for customs and reach all indigenous Australians). However, there was also great positivity towards the apology.

Indigenous Australians indicated that many of their reactions to the apology had been positive. Even though there was sadness and anger over the events which led to the apology, it was overall accepted and appreciated by the community. The people felt vindicated that their sufferings had been acknowledged, and power was restored when they felt others did not think they were lying. This helped to restore their pride and dignity. The indigenous Australians felt as though the apology brought about spiritual healing and would improve their future well-being. They also indicated that the apology was a necessary step towards reconciliation and pride for Australia.

Most indigenous Australians expressed that they felt the apology helped them in moving towards personal forgiveness. However, to them it was more about recognising the events which happened and the suffering caused, than actually forgiving the wrong-doings. Some said that it was impossible to “forgive and forget” and denied any forgiveness came of the event. Others questioned the meaning of forgiveness, deemed it unnecessary or claimed they had already forgiven the past. However, most indigenous Australians agreed that forgiveness will not be instantaneous and it will take further recognition and action by the government in order to prove sincerity. This will also help the indigenous communities to regain the trust in the government and heal from the past wrong-doings.

As a result of the apology to the stolen generation, indigenous Australians felt that it was a step in the right direction for Australia. Overall they left feeling less hurt and angry, with some indicating that the anger of the past was not worth holding on to. Some indigenous Australians emerged from the apology speech feeling great compassion and pity for the white Australians, which demonstrated understanding and empathy towards the out-groups. The apology to the stolen generation restored power to the indigenous Australians and promoted equality. This was the first necessary step towards forgiveness and reconciliation.

Using apology in mediation[edit | edit source]

One of the main reasons people seek out counselling or mediation is to try to resolve personal conflicts, betrayals and feelings of hurt. It is widely accepted that dwelling on the wrongs of the past can impact a person’s health and act as a barrier for reconciliation (Zaiser & Giner-Sorolla, 2013). Mediation can be particularly useful as it can be difficult for positive interactions between individuals (or groups) when the past is being ignored. One aim of mediation is to help facilitate reconciliation after conflict by encouraging forgiveness. However, the offender is often more satisfied with the outcome than the victim.

There are different motives which encourage people to seek mediation and forgiveness. Often, these motives are different for the offender than they are for the victim. For example, the offender may apologise to the victim or offer amends for their own personal gains such as improving relations. They may also wish to apologise in order to improve their image and gain support.

People also tend to seek out mediation in order to gain a level of satisfaction and resolution. The extent to which the offender no longer feels responsible for the wrong-doing is one predictor of satisfaction. The satisfaction of the victim is also a predictor of satisfaction for the offender. A study by Zaiser and Giner-Sorolla (2013) found when victims were asked to imagine receiving an apology from the offender, they tended to overestimate the level of satisfaction they would feel when they actually received one. After an apology, offenders often feel as though they deserve forgiveness. However, conciliatory acts do not provoke the offender being forgiven and victims also do not see forgiveness as a necessary outcome of receiving an apology. It is more beneficial for the victim to accept an apology, as rejecting an apology leads to negative attitudes, less support, and less compensation than those who forgive the offender. Apologising assists in restoring the offender’s image and puts the obligation back onto the victim.

The benefits of forgiveness[edit | edit source]

Forgiving the offender after an apology yields many benefits for the victim. The victims who choose to forgive tend to experience a better psychological well-being and physical health than those that do not forgive (Cox, Bennett, Tripp, & Aquino, 2012). Psychological benefits include lower levels of depression and anxiety, and a higher self-esteem. The decrease of hostility encourages love, trust and confidence. However, forcing a victim to forgive the offender will still result in negative feelings.

Mediation which encourages forgiveness also results in better physical and mental health. According to Van Dyke and Elias (2007), mediation decreases the heart rate, relaxes the breathing, helps with sleep, and reduces feelings of anger and hostility. Forgiveness and mediation both seek to relieve the victim and offender of stress, and encourages positive emotions. Physically, forgiveness also changes hormonal patterns, affects the nervous system, blood chemistry, and brain activity. Forgiveness is beneficial for victims as it is related to better life satisfaction and can help to predict better health in the future.

Chapter Summary[edit | edit source]

  • Apologies help to right past wrong-doings.
  • Apologising is an explicit acknowledgement of the offense in which the offender takes responsibility of their actions
  • Offenders can experience feelings of denial, anxiety, humiliation, regret and shame
  • Expressing an apology is a sign of good character as it gives the offender humanistic traits such as empathy and morals
  • Victims feel validated, and their dignity and power restored
  • Apologies help to reduce anger and hostility. Failing to apologise can increase hostility towards the offender.
  • Steps to making an apology are to: acknowledge, explain, express and amend
  • Mediation is a tool used to help reduce conflict, enhance positive interactions, facilitate reconciliation and encourage forgiveness
  • The benefits of forgiveness following an apology include:
    - Increased self-esteem and lowered levels of depression and anxiety
    - Decreased levels of negative emotions, such as anger
    - Forgiveness decreases heart rate, relaxes breathing, and helps with sleep
    - Helps increase life satisfaction
    - Yields better mental and physical health

External Links[edit | edit source]

Secretariat of National Aboriginal & Islander Child Care

Apologising to the LGBT Community

See Also[edit | edit source]

Stolen Genrations

Christianity and Homosexuality



License[edit | edit source]

Creative Commons License
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This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License. In short: you are free to distribute and modify the work as long as you attribute its author(s) or licensor(s). Official license

References[edit | edit source]

Bennett, M., & Dewberry, C. (1994). ‘I’ve said I’m sorry, haven’t I?’ A study of the identity implications and constraints that apologies create for their recipients. Current Psychology: A Journal for Diverse Perspectives on Diverse Psychological Issues, 13, 10-20.

Cox, S., Bennett, R., Tripp, T., & Aquino, K. (2012). An empirical test of forgiveness motives’ effects on employee’s health and well-being. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 17, 330-340.

Jordan, K., Worthington Jr, E., & Sutton, G. (2013). Promoting forgiveness toward Christians by LGBTQ respondents using apology and perspective taking. Journal of Psychology & Christianity, 32, 99-114.

Hareli, S., & Eisikouits, Z. (2006). The rule of communicating social emotions accompanying apologies in forgiveness. Motivation & Emotion, 30, 189-197.

Harvard Mental Health Letter. (2008). Learning how to say ‘I’m sorry’. Harvard Mental Health Letter, 24, 4-5.

Mutter, K. (2012). Apologies: The art of saying ‘I am sorry”. Journal of Psychology & Christianity, 31, 345-353.

Philpot, C., Balvain, N., Mellor, D., & Bretherton, D. (2013). Making meaning from collective apologies: Australia’s apology to its indigenous people. Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 19, 34-50.

Schneider, C. (2000). What it means to be sorry: the power of mediation. Mediation Quarterly, 17, 265-280.

Smith, C., Diyu, C., Harris, P. (2010). When the happy victimizer says sorry: Children’s understanding of apology and emotion. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 28, 727-746.

Thomas, R., & Millar, M. (2008). The impact of failing to give an apology and the need-for-cognition on anger. Current Psychology: A Journal for Diverse Perspectives on Diverse Psychological Issues, 27, 126-134.

Van Dyke, C., & Elias, M. (2007). How forgiveness, purpose, and religiosity are related to the mental health and well-being of youth: A review of the literature. Mental Health, Religion and Culture, 10, 395-415.

Wohl, M., Hornsby, M., & Bennett, S. (2012). Why group apologies succeed and fail: intergroup forgiveness and the role of primary and secondary emotions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102, 306-322.

Zaiser, E., & Giner-Sorolla, R. (2013). Saying sorry: shifting obligation after conciliatory acts satisfies perpetrator group members. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 105, 584-604.