What makes for a good apology?

When organizations harm those they seek to serve, they must apologise. But there is a big difference between a lawyerly statement of contrite caveats, and a true apology.

When apologising, the research shows that organizations must include seven things:

  1. Identification of a wrongful act. 
  2. Statement of apologetic intent. 
  3. Promise that the offense will not reoccur. 
  4. Emotional expression of remorse. 
  5. Explanation for why the violation occurred.
  6. Expression of responsibility for the offense. 
  7. Reparations.

We conducted an online study on the effects of vague and concrete reparation offers in apologies.

Read our full report here.

Apology research often emphasizes the importance of including some form of reparations in the apology for the victims. However, we don’t know much about the actual effects of including reparations in an apology in non-WEIRD countries. Would people feel respected after receiving an apology with vague reparations?

We found that a sincere apology can be important – on receiving such an apology, respondents tended to say that it was a good apology, that their dignity had been respected, and that they would welcome the organization back to their area.

However, in this study, offers of reparations made little difference to the value of that apology. Adding a vague or concrete promise of reparations did not lead respondents to rate the apology as better or more respectful, to feel their power had been restored or that the organization should continue working there.

The Dignity Project believes that where harm has been done, reparations should be offered, as a matter of justice. However, this study does not add to the evidence or argument for reparations in cases of wrongdoing; in the evaluation of our participants, a sincere apology goes a long way, and the promise of reparations is not what makes or breaks that apology.

Our study design

We recruited 458 respondents from Colombia to take an online survey employed through SurveyMonkey in Spanish. All participants were presented with a vignette outlining a harm done to their community by a hypothetical international aid organization, and given a standard ‘good’ apology for this harm. Participants were randomly sorted into one of three conditions:

  1.  Control: they received the base apology (and no offer of reparations)
  2.  Treatment 1: they received the base apology and a vague offer of reparations
  3.  Treatment 2: they received the base apology and a concrete offer of reparations

In each of the treatments, we sought to answer the following questions:

  • Do participants feel their dignity has been respected by the apology?
  • Do participants feel the apology was ‘good’?
  • Do participants feel the apology is sincere? 
  • Do the participants feel as though their power has been restored by the apology?
  • Would participants welcome the organization back into their communities?

What we learned

Our analysis found no substantial evidence to conclude that vague and concrete reparations significantly affected participants’ feelings of respectedness, power restoration, apology sincerity, or apology goodness. As evidenced in this chart, on average participants ranked the apology as a 4-5 (‘neutral’ to ‘agree’) on the 7-point scale Likert scale for the question of if they felt the apology had respected their dignity. Although contrary to our initial hypothesis, our results reveal that an apology statement that includes the six most common components of a ‘good’ apology, as outlined by previous research, can be effective even without an offer of reparations.

One important note we believe that aid organizations can take away from our findings is that the offer of reparations should not be weighted more heavily than other components when issuing an apology. A good apology may include an offer of reparations, but it is not what makes or breaks a good apology. There can be instances in which an apology without reparations is just as effective as one with reparations. Organizations should assess their situation and take the time to understand what the victims really care about before offering reparations in every case.

Understanding the role of dignity and respect in apologies is deeply important and is an area of research that should be further explored. We believe that future research ideally should focus on conducting field experiments after actual apologies have been issued. 

Future Interventions

We also suggest other interventions to integrate dignity and respect into the apologies organizations make in the future, including (1) holding public forums, (2) facilitating interaction with the community outside of giving aid, (3) visiting people who were harmed to understand their needs, (4) hiring community members in positions of leadership, and (5) committing to internal re-designs after transgressions. There is much more than can be tested here.

Apologies should be issued after harm has been caused in international development as a step towards repairing damage and hopefully building something even stronger, whether it be trust, equity or a better relationship between the organization and the population being served. We acknowledge that re-building relationships is not easy, but it is certainly not impossible, and we hope that the results from our study can help encourage international aid organizations to recognize the importance of, and resolve to make, better and more respectful apologies. 

Perceived respectedness chart

By Rex Chng, Niyati Patel, Jordan Sessa, and Karla Terroba

University of Pennsylvania, Master of Behavioral and Decision Sciences Candidates