Do apologies even matter?

Science is finally proving that the act of apologizing can save and strengthen a relationship that’s been damaged by conflict.

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Science is finally proving that the act of apologizing can save and strengthen a relationship that’s been damaged by conflict. Relationships are fragile and can be easily strained or broken. After being hurt, it’s a very natural reaction to distance oneself from a transgressor, no matter how close the relationship.

But for much of human history, philosophy and religion have served to espouse the virtue of forgiveness. Now, studies into the science of apologizing and forgiveness are beginning to support these beliefs. Dr. Amrisha Vaish, associate professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, is on the frontlines of this new line of study.

Vaish observes the varied interactions between transgressors and their victims, particularly focusing on these behaviors in children. “Apologizing, showing remorse, feeling concern for someone who has been harmed,” says Vaish, “all of those are things that children pay attention to very early on, really in the first year already. I think that tells us something about who we are as a species.”

The Science Behind Apologizing

In one study that Vaish and her team performed, two experimenters were paired up with a child and all three of them drew pictures together. But when they finished, the experimenters ripped up the child’s drawing. One of the transgressors showed remorse for the action by taking responsibility for it and apologizing. The other remained neutral, acknowledging that it took place but showing no remorse for it.

Vaish then asked the child whom they preferred between the two experimenters. “By five years of age, children clearly preferred the one who had shown remorse,” Vaish explains. Because the child saw an effort from the first transgressor to repair the relationship, the child was more drawn to him or her.

In another study, Vaish’s team placed children in a group setting. Two experimenters joined the children, but one of them joined the children as a member of the group while the other remained outside of the group. Again, everyone was asked to draw a picture and afterward, both experimenters “accidentally” tore a child’s drawing.

This time, the in-group experimenter showed no remorse while the out-group experimenter did. Surprisingly, the researchers found that the children consistently preferred the out-group member who showed remorse and avoided the in-group member who did not.

“So here we see what they really care about is that the transgressor shows their commitment to them, to the relationship, and they will seek that person out over even an in-group member,” says Vaish.

People inherently seek companionship and connection, but to err is human. Relationships can become strained by any level of transgression, so it’s important to understand how to regain someone’s trust and commitment after damaging it.

Going Beyond Mere Apologies

In an article published in The Atlantic titled “Guilt is Good,” Vaish discusses another experiment which was performed in Germany with two- and three-year-old children. In this experiment, the children were asked to play with a marble track. Near the track, the experimenters placed a block tower and asked the children to please not damage it.

The tower would inevitably get hit by the marbles the children were playing with, evoking a sad response from the experimenter. Many of the two-year-olds showed immediate sympathy to the experimenter for the damaged tower, but the responses of the three-year-olds went even further. They expressed guilt along with sympathy and sought to fix the tower.

Vaish states in the article that this response from the children demonstrates, “the beginnings of real guilt and real conscience.” This recognition of fault and the desire to repair the damage shows us that guilt can be good. Guilt implicates a commitment to a relationship or a social contract that when we wrong someone, we’re obliged to show a recognition of responsibility and a willingness to correct the behavior.

What these experiments demonstrate is that humans, from a very young age, understand the need to repair broken social ties. They recognize that when someone is at fault, it’s that person’s responsibility to show remorse and repair the damage done.

So, what constitutes an effective apology? Dr. Christine Carter, a sociologist and senior fellow at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, says it’s not just about saying “sorry.” After this expression of remorse should come an admittal of the specific mistake that was made, as well as a recognition of the negative impact that the mistake had on its victim.

Finally, the transgressor should explain the steps they’re going to take so that the offending action doesn’t reoccur. Talk can be cheap, but actions showing a dedication to the relationship can help rebuild trust.

“Certainly, the most important thing about apologizing,” describes Vaish, “is doing it sincerely because this is what we really want to achieve – that we genuinely reflect on what we’ve done and ways in which we can do better in the future.”

When a relationship becomes strained or damaged by our own fault, the key then is to express empathy, apologize, and re-establish trust. From our earliest age we seem to inherently recognize a moral duty to apologize for our transgressions. As adults, it’s important to make sure that we still seek to maintain and strengthen the relationships we hold dear.

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