Apologizing: Good Idea or Means to Manipulate?

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An apology can defuse anger, restore goodwill, and mend damaged relationships. In his book, The Upside of Irrationality, Dan Ariely, a prominent professor of psychology and behavioral economics, describes an experiment that demonstrates the upside of apologizing.

In the experiment, a researcher asked several patrons in a coffee shop if they’d be willing to complete a simple task in exchange for $5. To create an annoyance, the researcher pretended to take a phone call while explaining the instructions. After each person completed the task, the researcher “accidentally” gave the person four $1 bills and a $5 bill. But with some participants, he apologized for taking the call as he handed them their (over) payment.

The result: Many more people who received an apology returned the overpayment than those who didn’t receive an apology. Apparently, an apology in an innocuous situation is sufficient to counteract the effect of the annoyance.

But, sometimes, the situation is not so innocuous. For example, several hospitals have established medical apology programs. The idea is that, if a doctor causes a patient harm, the patient won’t sue if the doctor subsequently apologizes—and the patient receives financial compensation.

Does this program serve patients well, or is it a clever scheme to keep them from being adequately compensated for medical errors? As of now, opinions vary.

Still, an apology is often just the right thing to do. And, when it is, here are three steps to use as a guide:

  1. Acknowledge the impact of your actions.
  2. Express regret for your actions.
  3. Offer a remedy and pledge to change.

Whether or not you follow these three steps, sometimes it’s worth apologizing even if you’re not responsible for the thing for which you are apologizing. That was the experience of Todd Schnick, who apologized for an inconvenience he had apparently caused his accuser. His thinking was that it’s best to apologize and offer to do something to help. This approach, he says, “diffuses anger. It builds trust. It settles tempers. It creates level heads. And only then can the problem be tackled and solved.”

As it turns out, his accuser eventually realized his mistake and apologized in return, and the relationship between the two improved as a result.

An apology won’t help if you need to apologize thirty-seven times a day, but, most of the time, if you’ve done someone a disservice, an apology won’t hurt—and it just might help.

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Naomi Karten

Naomi Karten is a writer and speaker who draws from her background in both psychology and IT. Naomi's recent books are Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals and Changing How You Manage and Communicate Change. Readers have described her newsletter, Perceptions and Realities, as lively, informative, and a breath of fresh air. Naomi is a regular columnist for StickyMinds.com.