How Do You Know Whether to Believe an Apology?
New research shows the type of communication that makes an apology believable.
Posted Sep 21, 2019
You’re feeling hurt over an offense that your friend has committed. After the initial transgression, your friend offers an apology claiming to feel regret over the incident. It’s now up to you to decide whether the apology is sincere.
Similarly, when celebrities, politicians, or athletes commit wrongdoing, they may try to get the public on their side with a statement of regret expressed in the media. Your decision as to whether to believe the apology takes on a different meaning when it’s not someone you personally know, but the gist of the problem remains the same. Consider Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's apology in mid-September 2019 for appearing in blackface on two or perhaps three (or more) separate occasions during his youth. How can you ever be certain that he means what he says?
According to University of Queensland’s Matthew Hornsby and colleagues (2019), the key to understanding whether an apology is sincere involves taking into account how well the gestures and words seem to be in sync. Does the apologizer seem bored, annoyed, or dismissive? What nonverbal signals is the individual providing into his or her true heart of hearts? As Hornsby and his fellow authors note, “humans have a wide repertoire of cues to signify remorse that lie outside words, and that sometimes replace the need for them."
What's more, to show you’re sorry you have to “embody” that remorse (p. 1). When you judge the sincerity of a public figure’s remorse, it’s a case of “one to many” (i.e. the transgressor appearing on the world stage) compared to individual acts of apology or “one to one.” The differences between these two judgments vary at subtle levels but mainly, as you might imagine, due to the fact that you don’t know the public individual other than through whatever social media channels you might have at your disposal. You do know your friend and can decide whether the misbehavior is out of character.
Another feature of a public apology is that the words are typically scripted, involving a “statement of regret, a promise that the transgression will not happen again, and a statement on how the transgressor plans to make amends” (p. 2). Unfortunately, for the person in question, there are many factors that work against the public offering their forgiveness, primarily because the viewing audience regards these words with skepticism.
For example, actor Felicity Huffman issued a self-effacing apology to the federal judge in Boston when she appeared for her court date in the college admissions scandal. She sounded sincere, and her tears would seem to reinforce her regret, but she’s used to reading from a script. Did she really mean what she said? Did she understand the implications of cheating to inflate her daughter’s SAT scores?
Hornsby and his collaborators cited several well-known instances in which a politician issued an apology and seemed to mean it via nonverbal channels by such extreme gestures as kneeling. The authors suggest that using nonverbal cues to signify internal states may actually be more effective than simply reading a prepared statement, or perhaps no statement at all.
However, the goal of the research was not to provide advice to misbehaving public officials or celebrities but to manipulate experimentally the verbal and nonverbal signifiers of regret that might affect the way people judging these apologies would react, and the judgments they made about the true motives of the apologizer. From there, the findings can provide insights into how people in an actual relationship navigate the rough waters of remorse and forgiveness.
The Hornsby et al. study used the experimental method to contrast verbal statements of an apology with what they called “embodied remorse,” or the expression through nonverbal actions of an appeal for forgiveness. Across a series of six studies, the authors characterized embodied remorse as involving the gestures of kneeling (two studies) or crying (four studies). The authors believed that embodied remorse should lead participants to feel greater forgiveness, more satisfaction with the apology, and more positive views of the perpetrator, due to a higher rating of the individual in question's perceived remorse.
However, the authors noted that there may be “trust-based ‘headwinds’” (p. 4) that lead people to regard those embodiments of remorse through crying as inauthentic, or what's called "crocodile tears.” The kneeling gesture, rather than being a sign of a true confession of guilt, may lead you to conclude that the individual is emotionally unstable and weak. As a result, you don’t feel convinced that the individual would never commit the act again.
To control for the impact of general trust, or lack thereof, the authors also included a measure of “dispositional” trust, or the tendency to believe what others say. Finally, the studies varied according to whether the apology was issued in the form of a public statement (i.e. press conference) or whether the transgressor made the apology to actual victims in a closed-door event. When meeting with the victims in a private setting, the role of distrust would be minimized because the apologizer is right there, confronting those whom he or she had wronged.
The first study in the series sets up the general framework of the experimental paradigm. Samples of American and Japanese participants saw images and read a text description in which officials responsible for the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power disaster apologized for failing to enforce safety regulations. In the public embodied regret conditions, the officials were described as kneeling to the ground at a press conference. In the private apology condition, officials expressed sorrow and regret to community residents affected by the disaster; again, in the embodied condition the company representatives kneeled while expressing their apology.
Participants in this first study rated their satisfaction with the response, the presence of ulterior motives in the officials, emotionality (emotional and upset), positive appraisal of the apology, perceived remorse, likelihood of reoffending, and forgiveness. The authors also took into account various demographic characteristics including age, sex, education, and political ideology.
The findings showed that, regardless of nationality, participants rated the kneeling officials as being more genuinely remorseful, regardless of the public or private nature of the apology. However, participants did not regard the offenders as less likely to conduct the same act in the future, nor did they feel more likely to offer forgiveness, despite seeing the kneeling apologizer as more remorseful.
Subsequent studies in the series repeated the same experiment with a different transgression that included genocidal acts, academic malpractice, public indecency, use of homophobic slurs, or protracted acts of racism. The embodied gestures included tears as well as kneeling, and the authors added measures of dispositional trust. As part of the final study, the authors pooled the results across all six studies, permitting a meta-analysis, or evaluation across larger samples, of the manipulations on whether embodiment affected the outcome variables of forgiveness, perceived remorse, positive appraisals, response satisfaction, and the presence of ulterior motives.
Across all studies, although embodied remorse appeared more genuine, there was no effect on forgiveness. Looking at the role of trust, which could be part of the picture, the authors noted that only for people who were generally suspicious did embodied remorse produce stronger positive reactions.
From this larger analysis, the authors concluded that “embodiment of remorse is not a panacea for the trust problems surrounding public apologies” (p. 20). Indeed, a gesture of remorse without an apology produced high levels of skepticism in participants. Yet, even perceiving the transgressor as insincere had no “backfire effects” on reducing forgiveness. In evaluating these findings, the authors suggest that perhaps forgiveness was not the right dependent variable. What seems to matter for victims is that the apologizer will not commit the act in the future, and that the perpetrator follows through on the “implicit promises” expressed within the apology (p. 20).
To sum up, it seems that even the most cynical of individuals appreciate some form of embodied regret in an apology, even if that appreciation doesn’t turn into forgiveness. If you’re trying to determine whether to believe the sincerity of an apology, whether in a public figure or with a person you're in a relationship with, the current research suggests that you go beyond your biases or possible lack of trust to try to separate the verbal and nonverbal elements. The authors of the Australian-led research team believe that tears go farther than other physical gestures, even the extremely contrite act of kneeling, in communicating an apologizer’s true feelings. If tears are flowing down the face of your apologizer, this can be a sign that even if you’re not ready to forgive, you should consider being ready to suspend disbelief for long enough to see if the transgressor lives up to the promises of learning from experience.
Hornsey, M. J., Wohl, M. J. A., Harris, E. A., Okimoto, T. G., Thai, M., & Wenzel, M. (2019). Embodied remorse: Physical displays of remorse increase positive responses to public apologies, but have negligible effects on forgiveness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. doi:10.1037/pspi0000208