It’s not always as easy as simply saying you’re sorry. According to a new study published in the journal Organizational and Human Decision Process, a one-size-fits-all apology is not the most effective route to conflict resolution.
The study involved 171 undergraduate students who were presented with a hypothetical scenario: While working on a group project for their co-ed fraternity, a fictional friend named Pat had accidentally harmed their computer by using a disk with a virus on it; afterward, Pat apologized for the mishap.
The participants read 10 different apologies from Pat. In some versions of the apology, Pat offered compensation for the damaged computer. In others, he offered empathy for the participants’ distress. And in others, Pat emphasized how sorry he was for letting the group down. Participants then rated how likely they were to forgive Pat after reading each apology.
The researchers found that the success of each type of apology depended on the way that the participant saw him- or herself in relation to other people—what researchers call “self-construal,” which was measured in a survey the participants filled out before reading about Pat.
Among participants who had a strong sense of autonomy and were concerned with entitlements and rights—an “independent self-construal”—the offer of compensation was most effective, since those people view their relationships in terms of the costs and benefits to themselves.
For participants who put a high premium on their close relationships, such as those with friends and family—a “relational self-construal”—the apology expressing empathy was most effective.
And participants who said they value group identity and social rules and norms—a “collective self-construal”—responded best to the apology where Pat acknowledged that he had violated group rules and norms by saying he had “let the whole group down” and “ failed in [his] duties to [their] fraternity and the campus community.”
In a separate part of the study, the researchers asked participants to rate good apologies by indicating how much they agreed with statements like “In general, a good apology should include an offer to compensate me for what happened.” Again, they found that the effectiveness of the apology type depended on the concerns and values of the participant.
The results suggest that for an apology to elicit forgiveness and reconciliation, you should be sensitive to the particular characteristics and needs of the person you offended. If you don’t know the person well enough to determine which type of apology to make, the researchers suggest offering “detailed apologies with multiple components” since these are “more likely to touch upon what is important to the victim.”