Brain and Body

An Effective Apology Must Have These 6 Elements, According to Science

April 13, 2016 | Kelly Tatera

Sorry! board game
Photo credit: Yee/flickr (CC by SA 2.0)

The science-backed way to make sure an apology works.

Maybe it wouldn’t have been too late for the Biebs to say sorry if he had abided by the scientific elements of an apology.

According to researchers at Ohio State University, there are 6 fundamental elements of an effective apology — so if you really fudged up and want to make things right, it’s probably best to incorporate science into your apology.

"Apologies really do work, but you should make sure you hit as many of the six key components as possible," lead study author Roy Lewicki, professor emeritus of management and human resources at The Ohio State University's Fisher College of Business, said in a press release.

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The six elements of an effective apology are:

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

In two separate experiments, Lewicki and his team tested how over 750 people reacted to apologies containing anywhere from one to six of these elements.

According to the results, which are published in the journal Negotiation and Conflict Management Research, the most effective apologies contained all six elements, however not all of the components of an apology are equally as important.

"Our findings showed that the most important component is an acknowledgement of responsibility. Say it is your fault, that you made a mistake," Lewicki said.

Element number five, an offer of repair, came in second place for most important.

"One concern about apologies is that talk is cheap. But by saying, 'I'll fix what is wrong,' you're committing to take action to undo the damage," he said.

The next three were essentially tied: expression of regret, explanation of what went wrong, and declaration of repentance.

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Lewicki said the least effective element of an apology is the last component — a request for forgiveness. He says that’s the one you can leave out if you must.  

In the first experiment, which involved 333 adults recruited online, the volunteers were asked to read a scenario in which they were a manager of an accounting department that was hiring a new employee.

At a previous job, the job candidate had incorrectly filed a tax return that understated a client’s capital gains income, and the potential employee apologized about the issue when confronted about it. The participants were told that the apology contained either one, three, or six of the apology components, and then rated the apology on a scale of 1 to 5 — not at all effective to very effective.

In the second experiment, which included 422 undergraduate students, they read the same scenario as the first study. However, instead of being told which components the apology contained, they read an actual apology statement that contained anywhere from one to six of the elements. For instance, “I was wrong in what I did, and I accepted responsibility for my actions.”

Again, the volunteers rated how effective and adequate the apology statement would be.

Lewicki says the results of the two experiments weren’t identical, but very similar — both were rated as more effective when the apology contained more of the six elements.

Importantly, Lewicki noted that the volunteers in the study simply read apology statements, but emotion and voice inflection of a face-to-face apology may have very powerful effects, as well.

"Clearly, things like eye contact and appropriate expression of sincerity are important when you give a face-to-face apology," he said.

Keep these science-backed tips in mind next time you have a sincere apology to make — they just might do the trick.

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