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Apologies are necessary and inevitable. So why do we find them so difficult? David De Cremer investigates.

By David De Cremer 03 July 2012

Apologies are necessary and inevitable. So why do we find them so difficult? David De Cremer investigates.


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No individual and no organisation is perfect. Reality means that we fail to meet the expectations of others, fail to deliver on our promises or create distrust in our relationships. Given this inescapable reality, it is little wonder that delivering apologies has developed into an important part of business strategy. Indeed, evidence shows that apologising for wrongdoing may help in reducing retaliation on behalf of the victims in significant ways. It can reduce the costs of lawsuits, ensure that customers stay committed to your company, maintain productivity and even create opportunities for building a more transparent and respectful working climate in the future.


And yet, if the fruits of an apology are so clear why do so many business leaders have such a hard time apologising? Why do both companies and individuals routinely miss the opportunity to offer an apology when needed?

A first question to ask when investigating the perils of apologies is whether the belief that apologies will mend relationships easily is valid. In other words, are apologies indeed the miracle medicine needed every time a transgression emerges? Are our beliefs regarding the effectiveness of apologies justified?

In a series of studies we examined this question and found evidence that the victims of transgressions overestimate the usefulness and effectiveness of apologies. Those victims considered the receipt of an apology as much more valuable when they imagined receiving an apology from the perpetrator compared to a situation in which they actually received an apology. The fact that imagining receiving an apology led to more positive evaluations than receiving a real apology indicates that we as humans expect much from apologies as a reconciliation tool but are poor forecasters of the true value of apologies.


Strategically sorry


In another study we found that in situations framed in terms of finance and business the delivery of an apology became driven in a very strategic way. The transgressor was motivated to apologise when they received, or perceived, a sign of assurance that they would be forgiven.

This result suggests that although we believe the delivery of an apology is valuable to the victim we also have developed the idea that apologising needs to be reciprocated – in this case by the victim forgiving the perpetrator. This result goes against the moral point of view that the delivery of an apology should be done without any hesitation and regardless of whether the act is reciprocated by a forgiving victim. When the transgression emerges in a business setting, such a moral perspective becomes less predictive and more strategic motives dominate.

In particular, a business and finance frame elicits more self-interested thoughts leading the perpetrator to expect an apology to be reciprocated by forgiveness. For this reason, if it is unclear to the perpetrator whether forgiveness will be granted the chances are slim that he or she will offer an apology.

So, why are apologies so difficult for perpetrators? In a first set of studies we demonstrated that apologies have important implications for a perpetrator’s moral self-esteem. That is, we showed that those perpetrators apologising reported lower moral self-esteem than those not apologizing. This suggests that the act of apologising reminds perpetrators of their bad and transgressing behaviour and has a negative impact on their moral self-image. Moreover, when we allowed perpetrator’s to affirm and promote their self-image by writing positive things about themselves this was eliminated. This makes it clear that an apology carries relatively high costs in terms of a perpetrator’s moral reputation and self-esteem. This may lead participants to evaluate the actual delivery of an apology as very stressful and difficult.

Follow-up studies provided further evidence in favour of this conclusion. Perpetrators considered apologies as very stressful and difficult. Interestingly, when perpetrators actually delivered an apology they reported it being less stressful and experienced less difficulties compared to when they imagined delivering an apology. The reality appears to be that perpetrators overestimate how difficult and stressful the delivery of a self-threatening apology really is.

Overall, our studies show that apologies are valued, although more is needed than simply saying I’m sorry. The delivery of an apology needs to be motivated by sincere desires to remedy the mistakes of the past. Perpetrators need to develop skills so that they can clearly signal that they understand and are willing and able to take care of the concerns and needs of the victims.

It seems that perpetrators have developed strong beliefs that apologies can only be given if the victim will forgive them and the apology itself will not make them look bad. Because of these fears perpetrators run the risk of overly focusing on the risks and costs associated with delivering an apology. In a peculiar way the belief exists that refraining is a better strategy. Of course, if perpetrators only apologise when their own needs and desires – being forgiven and maintaining a positive moral self-esteem – are safeguarded then this will actually hurt their reputation.

What needs to be done? Managers need to become more relaxed when it comes down to using apologies as reconciliation tools and develop more accurate perceptions of how valuable apologies really are and as such motivate them to more easily use them when having been involved in transgressions. Put simply, as apologies have been shown to reveal amazing social benefits – restoring trust and improving your reputation – it is important to realise that it may actually be less difficult to apologise because this is what people want and this strong desire leads victims to overestimate the true value of the apologies they receive.No individual and no organisation is perfect. Reality means that we fail to meet the expectations of others, fail to deliver on our promises or create distrust in our relationships. Given this inescapable reality, it is little wonder that delivering apologies has developed into an important part of business strategy. Indeed, evidence shows that apologising for wrongdoing may help in reducing retaliation on behalf of the victims in significant ways. It can reduce the costs of lawsuits, ensure that customers stay committed to your company, maintain productivity and even create opportunities for building a more transparent and respectful working climate in the future.

And yet, if the fruits of an apology are so clear why do so many business leaders have such a hard time apologising? Why do both companies and individuals routinely miss the opportunity to offer an apology when needed?

A first question to ask when investigating the perils of apologies is whether the belief that apologies will mend relationships easily is valid. In other words, are apologies indeed the miracle medicine needed every time a transgression emerges? Are our beliefs regarding the effectiveness of apologies justified?

In a series of studies we examined this question and found evidence that the victims of transgressions overestimate the usefulness and effectiveness of apologies. Those victims considered the receipt of an apology as much more valuable when they imagined receiving an apology from the perpetrator compared to a situation in which they actually received an apology. The fact that imagining receiving an apology led to more positive evaluations than receiving a real apology indicates that we as humans expect much from apologies as a reconciliation tool but are poor forecasters of the true value of apologies.

De Cremer, D., Pillutla, M., & Reinders Folmer, C. (2011). How important is an apology to you? Forecasting errors in predicting the true value of apologies. Psychological Science, 22, 45-48. Leunissen, J., De Cremer, D., & Reinders, F. (2012). The Importance of Forgiveness in Perpetrators’ Choice to Apologize: An Instrumental Perspective on Apologizing in Bargaining. Journal of Economic Psychology, 32, 215-222.

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