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Study reveals apologizing isn’t always the right thing to do

A recent study published in the Scientific American reveals that “I’m sorry” just isn’t good enough. Subjects were tested by being shorted money and those who imagined getting an apology were happier than those who were apologized to.

Additionally, those who only envisioned apologies proved to have higher trust levels of trust in subsequent testing, revealing that people who soothed themselves were happier and had higher trust levels than those relying on others to soothe them.

“The expectations for an apology to make us feel better and even forget about the bad things that have happened are overestimated,” says study co-author David De Cremer of the Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University. “In light of fraud cases, the financial crisis, the moral escalation that people seem to witness in contemporary society, there is a cry for apologies, such that we seem to live in an apology culture.”

The study did find a benefit to apologies, however- restoring social order (think Bill Clinton’s apology).

Apologies are a part of the fabric of call centers, political speeches, gas station attendants, and part of the script of business and often unnecessary (“I’m sorry you were put on hold”).

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How to use this study to your advantage:

The bottom line is that when a client calls you or your assistant, you may feel good about yourself because you sucked up your pride and said, “okay, sorry,” but if there is no sincerity or empathy behind it, your client will most certainly lack happiness and trust, according to this study.

I learned from Benn years ago the mantra, “tell me what you CAN do, not what you CAN’T do,” and it comes to mind today- next time you’re tasked with apologizing, you should not only mean it, but tell your client/caller/whatever what you CAN do, not just a scripted or insincere apology.

Lani is the COO and News Director at The American Genius, has co-authored a book, co-founded BASHH, Austin Digital Jobs, Remote Digital Jobs, and is a seasoned business writer and editorialist with a penchant for the irreverent.




    January 27, 2011 at 5:18 pm

    this is true for dating too!

    • Lani Rosales

      January 28, 2011 at 12:11 am

      You think so? I don’t know about that!!

  2. Mariana

    January 27, 2011 at 5:19 pm

    “I’m sorry” becomes meaningless so quickly. I rarely apologize. Mostly because I rarely do something worth apologizing for. I’m more likely to say, “wow, that sucks.” I teach my kids that, unless you will never ever do it again, do NOT apologize. So, they rarely apologize either.

    • Lani Rosales

      January 28, 2011 at 12:40 am

      I think it’s kind of like confession- if you don’t mean it and you plan on or think you might do it again, you aren’t truly absolved even if the priest says you are (he can’t possibly know what’s going on inside your head). Not that religion and business is the same, but communications are communications. Good call on not saying empty apologies!

  3. Agent for Movoto

    January 27, 2011 at 7:02 pm

    @Mariana – that’s a very good parenting technique, i think (i don’t have kids, sooo…..). I remember coming to that conclusion on my own as a child – “i’m probably going to do it again and it’s not that big a deal if/when i do” – and totally failing to understand why my parents insisted on apologies. they just wouldn’t see reason!

    I think more often than not the apology vindicates the sinner MUCH more than it consoles the sinned-against. But . . . . . what’s the alternative?

    • Lani Rosales

      January 28, 2011 at 12:41 am

      From a business standpoint, the alternative is to solve a problem whether you’re sorry or not! Right? 🙂

  4. Sheila Bell

    January 28, 2011 at 11:18 am

    I don’t know how you do it, but you always seem to hit on a topic of importance to me. I couldn’t agree more with the notion of using “I’m sorry” as a substitute for thinking in advance. Apparently this study gives some empirical evidence that people aren’t necessarily swayed by the words. My feeling is saying that you’re sorry is simply a statement that reinforces the idea that one should have considered behavior more closely before acting!
    Thanks, Lani, for another good article.

    • Lani Rosales

      January 28, 2011 at 3:25 pm

      Oh that’s such a huge compliment, thanks Sheila!! 🙂 Your thoughts about a scripted apology are right on- don’t do things that require an apology in the first place!

  5. Liz Benitez

    January 28, 2011 at 12:06 pm

    Surprisingly this post comes on a day that I screw up and need to apologies to a client. We have a courtesy moving truck. I thought I had them scheduled to pick up today but really they were scheduled for tomorrow, so when they showed up this morning it was still out. Lucky the agent in the office was able to get a hold of the current truck user and get him to bring it back a few hours early. Not before my clients sat around waiting for a hour :-/ Hate little screw ups like that.

    • Lani Rosales

      January 28, 2011 at 2:24 pm

      Liz, I believe that because you made it right, you took more steps than the average professionals and you will make the clients trust you and be happy because it clearly bothered you which leads to empathy and sincerity, so kudos!

  6. BawldGuy

    January 28, 2011 at 4:53 pm

    Since I’ve never learned how to walk on water, when I do something I think merits an apology, I do so. I don’t hand them out like cookies from Girl Scouts. When I’m told an apology isn’t enough, that for some reason I don’t seem contrite enough, I offer them a way to explore themselves. On the flip side, when folks apologize to me, I accept it as graciously as possible, assuming their intent is real. Since I can’t know their minds/hearts, I assume the best, knowing they’re as imperfect as I.

    Those who insist on some sort of sad face, overt emotions, or similar such theatrics, are nothing more nor less than cheap manipulators searching for power — petty emotional terrorists if you will. My apology has always carried with it the assumption I’ve wronged someone. I apologize to them, but am forgiven by a higher power.

    I never expect, nor do I ever demand apologies from anyone. I always expect myself to apologize ASAP when I’ve judged myself to have been in the wrong. I’m not anyone’s judge, and they’re certainly not mine.

    Make sense?

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