We all want an apology when someone does us wrong. Are the apologies effective? From the person giving the apology, it may be assumed so. From the perspective of the person receiving, it, maybe not. But showing changed behavior may be more convincing.
A new study, published in Psychological Science, finds that people aren’t very good at predicting how much they’ll value an apology. Apologies have been in the news a lot the last few years in the context of the financial crisis, says David De Cremer of Erasmus University in the Netherlands. He cowrote the study with Chris Reinders Folmer of Erasmus University and Madan M. Pillutla of London Business School. “Banks didn’t want to apologize because they didn’t feel guilty but, in the public eye, banks were guilty,” De Cremer says. But even when some banks and CEOs did apologize, the public didn’t seem to feel any better. “We wondered, what was the real value of an apology?”
De Cremer and his colleagues used an experiment to examine how people think about apologies. Volunteers sat at a computer and were given 10 euros to either keep or give to a partner, with whom they communicated via computer. The money was tripled so that the partner received 30 euros. Then the partner could choose how much to give back-but he or she only gave back five euros. Some of the volunteers were given an apology for this cheap offer, while others were told to imagine they’d been given an apology.
The people who imagined an apology valued it more than people who actually received an apology. This suggests that people are pretty poor forecasters when it comes down to what is needed to resolve conflicts. Although they want an apology and thus rate it as highly valuable, the actual apology is less satisfying than predicted.
“I think an apology is a first step in the reconciliation process,” De Cremer says. But “you need to show that you will do something else.” He and his authors speculate that, because people imagine that apologies will make them feel better than they do, an apology might actually be better at convincing outside observers that the wrongdoer feels bad than actually making the wronged party feel better.
A study from the University of Pennsylvania offers some insight into the psychology of trust-both violation and repair. Psychological scientist Maurice Schweitzer, an expert on organizations and decision making, decided to explore the idea of trust recovery in the lab. He and his colleagues-Michael Haselhuhn and Alison Wood-wanted to see if basic beliefs about moral “character” influence trust violations and forgiveness. They also wanted to see if they could modify those beliefs-and in doing so make people more or less forgiving.
The scientists recruited a large group of volunteers to play an elaborate game involving breaches of trust and reparations. But before the game started, they primed the volunteers with different beliefs about moral character. Some were nudged to believe that people can change-that people can and do become more ethical and trustworthy if they sincerely set their minds to it. The others were primed with the opposite belief-basically that scoundrels will always be scoundrels. This core belief is surprisingly easy to manipulate, and the researchers did it here simply by having the volunteers read essays arguing for one belief or the other.
The trust game that followed goes like this: You have $6, which you can either keep or give to another person. If you give it away, it triples in value to $18, which the recipient can either keep or split with you, $9 apiece. So initially giving away the $6 is obviously an act of trust. But in order to study trust recovery, the scientists put the volunteers through several rounds of the game. In the early rounds, the recipient (actually a computer) violated trust by keeping the $6 a couple times in a row. Then the recipient apologized and promised to be more trustworthy from now on. Then there was one final opportunity to be either trusting or not.
So does believing in the possibility of change shape people’s ability to forgive-and trust again? It does, dramatically. As the scientists reported in the journal Psychological Science, they easily eroded trust and they also easily restored it-but only in those who believed in moral improvement. Those who believed in a fixed moral character, incapable of change, were much less likely to regain their trust after they were betrayed.
These results have practical implications for anyone trying to make amends and reestablish trust-in recovery, in business, in love-and yes, in politics. Apologies and promises may not be enough in some cases, and indeed it may be more effective to send a convincing message about the human potential for real moral transformation. The best way to send that message, of course, may be to act like a changed person.