A team of researchers has decided to delve into the human psyche in order to solve an age-old, mystifying problem: what’s the best way to make an apology? According to their study, published in the journal Negotiation and Conflict Management Research, the perfect apology contains six elements, but acknowledging and accepting responsibility for at least part of the perceived wrongdoing is by far the most important.
The second most important factor was an offer of reparations. "One concern about apologies is that talk is cheap,” Roy Lewicki from The Ohio State University's Fisher College of Business, and lead author of the study, said in a statement. “But by saying, 'I'll fix what is wrong,' you're committing to take action to undo the damage.”
Lewicki and his team recruited 333 adults from a range of backgrounds, each of whom was asked to read through a scenario in which they were the manager of an accounting department that was looking to hire a new employee. At the previous job for one particular hypothetical candidate, they filed an incorrect tax return, but apologized when they were confronted with it.
Each apology varied, and contained one, three, or all six components of what the researchers thought commonly exist in apologies:
1. Expression of regret
2. Explanation of what went wrong
3. Acknowledgment of responsibility
4. Declaration of repentance
5. Offer of repair
6. Request for forgiveness
After being informed which components each apology contained, the participants were then asked to rate, on a numerical scale, how effective, credible, and suitable each apology was. This study revealed that, in general, the more components that were included, the more effective the apology was.
Avoiding responsibility is the worst possible idea. Purino/Shutterstock
In a second study, the researchers asked 422 undergraduate students to read through the same scenario included in the first. This time, however, instead of being told which components each apology contained, they were left in the dark. In addition, each apology could contain anywhere from one to six of the components.
Once again, the apologies with the most components were seen to be more effective. Significantly, however, both studies agreed that asking for forgiveness was seen as the least important aspect, whereas accepting responsibility was seen as the most important.
Intriguingly, in both studies, half of the participants were told the tax return error was made accidentally, whereas the other half were told it was knowingly filed incorrectly. Regardless of which they were told, the value of each apologetic component remained the same. Ultimately, though, the participant who had acted deceivingly was less likely to be hired than the one that was merely incompetent.
It’s important to note that this study only involved reading apologetic statements, so the body language and emotion inherent in verbal apologies – which is at least as important as the content of the apology itself – was unable to be taken into account.
For this, we’re sure the authors can only apologize.