The Anatomy of a Good Apology, According to Science

This might be the key to forgiveness. 

i'm-sorry-note
Photo by Jamie Grill/Getty Images

Whether you've hurt a friend's feelings or made a mistake at work, there are times when simply saying "sorry" doesn't cut it. But good news: instead of scrambling for the right words to say, you can now rely on a new research-backed formula to make an apology more effective.

To determine what makes an apology successful, researchers at Ohio State University conducted two separate experiments with a total of 755 participants, the results of which are published in Negotiation and Conflict Management Research. They began by coming up with the six major components of an apology: 

1. Expression of regret
2. Explanation of what went wrong
3. A
cknowledgement of responsibility
4. D
eclaration of repentance
5. O
ffer of repair
6. R
equest for forgiveness

In the first study, 333 adults read a scenario in which they were a manager hiring a new employee. One candidate had made a mistake at their last job, and when confronted about it, the candidate apologized. After being informed that the apology contained one, three, or all six of the apology components, the participants rated the apology statement on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being not at all effective, and 5 being very effective.

In the second experiment, 422 undergraduate students read the same scenario, but then read an actual apology that included anywhere from one to six statements based on the six components (such as "I was wrong in what I did, and I accepted responsibility for my actions.") They then rated the effectiveness of the apology.

In both studies, the more elements the apology contained, the more effective, credible, and adequate it was perceived to be. The most important component was found to be acknowledgement of responsibility (saying it's your fault, and admitting you made a mistake), and the second most crucial is an offer of repair.

"Our concern about apologies is that talk is cheap," Roy Lewicki, lead author of the study, said in a statement. "But by saying, 'I'll fix what is wrong,' you're committing to take action to undo the damage."

Tied for third were expression of regret, explanation of what went wrong, and declaration of repentance. The least important is the request for forgiveness. And even though it wasn't measured in the experiment, your emotions and tone of voice can play a role as well. 

"Clearly, things like eye contact and appropriate expression of sincerity are important when you give a face-to-face apology," Lewicki said.