What Makes for a Genuine Public Apology & Will It Lead to People Being More Forgiving?

a white stick figure person in front of a blue stop sign with the word "SORRY" on it instead of "STOP"
Image by Pixabay / CC 0

Although it’s been said that sorry is the hardest word, I’ve also heard the following many times: “It’s easy enough to say you’re sorry. Doesn’t mean you mean it.”

Or something like it. Hundreds of times at this point.

It’s a pattern I’ve seen in my own personal life, as friends confide in me that they doubt the apology of someone else. I sometimes call these unconvincing attempts at saying sorry “faux-pologies.” The cubic zirconia of regret.

I’ve definitely received them. And to be frank, I’ve been accused of them by others (even in circumstances when I sincerely felt gutted, remorseful, and yes, sorry as hell, about something that I’d done).

And I’ve similarly seen public apologies subjected to the same label, when a figure comes out and says “sorry” to the big wide world.

A recent study looked into what makes a public apology seem genuine and how likely we are to forgive a public figure when making a perceived faux-pology versus a genuine one.

Physical Signs of Remorse Make a Public Apology Seem More Genuine, But We’re Not Any More Likely to Forgive Someone Who Is Genuinely Sorry

Across a series of six studies, researchers found consistent findings:

  • Public apologies that included physical displays of remorse (for example, tears) were consistently rated as more convincing and genuine than ones that did not.
  • However, people were not any more likely to forgive someone who seemed genuinely sorry. A more genuine apology did not lead to increased rates of forgiveness.

Well, crud. That’s a heck of a set of findings.

Unsurprising though, when considered alongside other research (both studies have been covered in earlier installments of this series). The presence of physical signs of remorse like tears fits well with other research done on crying, which has found that when someone cries, we’re more likely to trust them. Following this logic, it would only make sense that a crying person’s apology would seem more genuine.

Furthermore, the lack of forgiveness fits well with other research that’s found that apologies aren’t super helpful. People are in general very unforgiving. And the easiest way to be on good terms with someone is not to apologize well but to not offend them in the first place.

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This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.

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Books by Page Turner:

Dealing with Difficult Metamours

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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