How to say you’re sorry

May 31, 2016

Research looks at the anatomy of a public apology

With recent media stories about official apologies (Justin Trudeau’s apology in the House of Commons for the Komagata Maru incident) or the lack thereof (Barack Obama’s visit to Hiroshima), it seemed like the perfect time to ask Craig Blatz, associate professor of Psychology, about his research involving public apologies.

A genuine apology is a powerful thing—it can restore relationships and begin the process of healing and forgiveness. But when apologies reach beyond the personal, and address injustices committed by one group against another, Craig says that a different set of rules apply.

“Private and public apologies are very different. If I were apologizing to someone personally, I would have a lot of ways to communicate with that person,” says Craig. “I could use body language, tone of voice, emotion and reference the back story of our relationship to demonstrate sincerity, but people apologizing in more public ways don’t have those same tools available to them.”

To make up for the lack of cues to convey sincerity, Craig says that public apologies are generally much more elaborate, more formal and surrounded by ceremony.

“Offering an apology isn’t enough,” says Craig. “It’s really important how the apology is given and that is negotiated with the group receiving it. First, the perpetrator group actually needs to be remorseful. Then, the group needs to create an apology that deeply reflects on and expresses that remorse.”

Impact of sincerity and remorse

Craig worked with Rachel Steel from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst in a recent study—the first of its kind—that looked at the impact of sincerity and remorse on the way in which public apologies are received.

“While there isn’t definitive research to show that these apologies lead to forgiveness of the perpetrator group, they do have other important effects,” explains Craig. “Forgiveness and reconciliation are things that people who have committed a harm care about, but people who belong to a group against which a harm was committed also care a great deal about feeling that the world they live in is going to treat them well and in a respectful way.”

The two researchers took the content of the original apology for the Tuskagee Syphilis Study—a United States government study that allowed African-American men who had contracted syphilis to go untreated for decades after a cure was discovered—and tweaked the order of sentences in ways that made it seem less or more sincere. Then, they had African-American participants from around the U.S. read a description of the study along with one of six variations of the apology, including one that had no apology at all.

Elements of an apology

“We were trying to isolate a series of elements in an apology that are linked to the apology sounding sincere and remorseful,” says Craig. “We found that when an apology was present, and to a certain extent as it became perceived as being more sincere and remorseful, people believed a little more strongly that the government cared about just treatment of their group.”

He adds that it didn’t mean the recipients of the apology were necessarily more trusting of the government, but that they saw the government as valuing fair and just treatment of their particular group more.

Changing focus

Craig’s research has also looked at Canada’s apologies around the Canadian Chinese head tax and Japanese internment, but now he’s turning the focus of his research to more general political psychology. He and the five student researchers in his lab will continue to explore topics related to our collective desire to belong to a society that makes decisions based on our best interests.

Get MacEwan University news delivered to your inbox. Sign up for our weekly e-newsletter.

Read more about our faculty members' research:

Get MacEwan University news delivered to your inbox.
Sign up for our weekly e-newsletter