Research on How to Make an Effective Apology

I didn’t see this research until after I completed my book, The Road to Reconciliation, so I couldn’t include it; but I’m happy to report that the findings support what I said about how to make and screw up an apology. Most people screw them up.

In Apologies of the Rich and Famous: Cultural, Cognitive, and Social Explanations of Why We Care and Why We Forgive, sociologists Karen Cerulo and Janet Ruane, analyzed and studied the effectiveness of 183 celebrity apologies that occurred between October 2000 and October 2012.

They categorized each apology as utilizing denial, evasion, reduction, corrective action, and mortification. They identified seven sequences. Some, for instance, start out by focusing on the offender; some on the victim; others on the context. Once they categorized each apology, the researchers measured the apology’s effectiveness as indicated by opinion polls conducted shortly thereafter. An effective apology was defined as one that resulted in an improved opinion of the apologizer. In other words, Cerulo and Ruane only studied changes in public opinion, not the transformation of the character of the apologizer.

Less than a third of the apologies they looked at were effective with the public. In other words, at least two-thirds of apologies resulted in the apologizer digging a deeper hole for himself and becoming more contemptible. Cerulo and Ruane are able to say what works in making an apology.

  • Don’t wait, make an apology right away.
  • The first words in an apology matter. Don’t start by talking about how your life has been made more difficult since you got in trouble. Start by showing empathy for the victim.
  • Don’t apologize for what people think; apologize for what you did. Don’t say, “I’m sorry you misunderstood me.” Say, “I’m sorry I touched you without permission.”
  • No one wants to hear why you did it because it sounds like you’re making excuses.
  • Express regret and remorse.
  • If you express regret and remorse, actually feel regret and remorse. People can tell when you’re faking it.
  • Say what you’re doing to make restitution, but don’t say you’re going to rehab to make restitution. Rehab is not restitution. Rehab helps you, not the victim. Say what you’re doing to help the victim if you are able to make direct amends, or people like your victim, if you are not.
  • End your apology the same way you started it. The last words matter, too. End by showing empathy for the victim.
  • If you have already made your apology, but botched it, somehow; make a better one. You can still improve another’s opinion of you.

Like I said, Cerulo and Ruane only studied changes in public opinion, but, had they studied whether the apologizer repeated the offense after apologizing, in my experience I think they would have gotten the same results. I am eagerly awaiting the results of such a study.

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