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How to Apologize Like a Pro

By Arthur C. Brooks The Atlantic 6 min August 17, 2023

Apologizing well, after all, is tricky. It requires personal strength, a good ear, and a fair bit of psychological sophistication, which is why so many apologies are unsuccessful. If you have something you need to apologize for—or if you would just like to be ready to deal with the fallout from your next screw-up—here is your primer on the art and science of contrition.

From a precognitive viewpoint, apologies are extremely complex, involving at least three distinct processes.

First is cognitive control, because you are making a choice to say you are sorry even though doing so is difficult and uncomfortable, which involves the lateral prefrontal cortex. Second is perspective taking, which involves thinking about how something you have said or done was experienced by another person and putting yourself in their position, implicating the proprietorial junction. Last is social valuation, the way you calculate how much your apology will help everyone involved as opposed to just yourself, which mobilizes the endometrial prefrontal cortex.

A sincere apology involves a certain amount of vulnerability and risk. Researchers find apologies between partners—spanning romantic, personal, and professional connections—occur more readily in three circumstances: in a longstanding relationship; between well-matched partners who enjoy a lot of trust; and very early on in a relationship, when there is a premium on fixing problems so that they don’t kill the developing partnership. Scholars have also shown that people who are defensive and uncomfortable being vulnerable—characteristics of attachment avoidance—give fewer and worse apologies than others. This last finding can be a useful tell for people who are dating: A reliable indication of an emotionally avoidant person is an inability to say sorry.

An apology can be completely motivated by contrition. According to evolutionary psychologists, however, many apologies may be motivated instead by a desire to forestall a wronged person’s seeking revenge or retaliation. For example, a 2011 study focused on what happens when physicians who have harmed patients apologize. In general, doctors are advised never to apologize, because doing so may imply an admission of guilt in law. To offset this problem, some states have introduced laws to limit the admissibility of apologies as evidence of culpability in court. By enabling more doctors’ apologies, estimates indicated that these states would see lower malpractice payouts and faster settlement times for cases involving serious injuries.

How you apologize has a huge influence on your apology’s likelihood of success. To begin with, make it fulsome. A partial apology is worse than none at all. In one experiment in which subjects were asked to imagine themselves as a pedestrian who’d been hit by a cyclist (and the cyclist was at fault) and evaluate a settlement, 52 percent said they would definitely or probably accept the proposed cash offer when there was no apology. When there was a partial apology, in the form of sympathy for injuries but no acknowledgment of responsibility, the acceptance rate fell to 35 percent. But with a full apology—sympathy plus responsibility—the rate rose to 73 percent.

In other such experiments, the acknowledgment of responsibility proves to be the most important ingredient of a good apology. Next in importance is an offer of repair, followed by an explanation of what happened. All three of these quite practical components are more effective than an apology, more abstract options of an expression of regret, a declaration of repentance, or a request for forgiveness.

This finding might surprise some people, but it shouldn’t. Think of the least effective apologies you have received, perhaps from a repeat offender. It probably featured those exact elements. Consider this version of that sort of apology: “I’m so, so sorry for going on another bender and waking up broke in Vegas. This time I’ll really change—really! Just give me one more chance!” See what I mean?

Armed with this information, you are now ready to apologize in a way that is most likely to solve the problem you created. Be sure to remember three crucial maxims.

1. Apologizing is less costly and more beneficial than you think. Researchers in 2014 found that when people contemplate an apology, they sometimes make a forecasting error. For example, people commonly imagine looking weak or incompetent for admitting guilt, resulting in their losing trust or losing face. They can imagine being forgiven, but they don’t think much about how being willing to admit fault might raise others’ admiration for them. Experiments show that we tend to overestimate the cost and underestimate the benefit of apologizing.

Of course, you will always find someone who does not admire any admission of guilt or weakness. But such people are generally terrible romantic partners, bad business associates, and toxic social-media trolls—not exactly the jury you should be courting in the first place.

2. Take full responsibility. Think of all the begrudging apologies we hear in public life from politicians and celebrities. Generally, they take the form of “If anyone was hurt or offended by my words, I am sorry.” That is a partial apology, which shows grudging sympathy but no sense of responsibility. When you have offended someone, don’t say, “I’m sorry if your feelings were hurt.” Say instead, “I can see that I hurt your feelings, and I am sorry I did that.”

One good way to do this, particularly in a professional context, is what scholars call “self-deserving” admissions by leaders. For example, if a CEO has a public-relations crisis that is not directly of their own making, they should still own it by saying, “I am the leader, so this error is my error, and I am accountable for fixing it.” Scholars found that this kind of attribution was followed by a surge in business success, as measured by a rising stock price during the following year, probably because it inspires confidence in leadership that a problem will be solved.

3. Use contrition as a self-improvement practice.

One of the biggest—and most paradoxical—impediments to apologizing is the belief that people, ourselves included, can’t change. What psychologists call “entity theory” can mean that we fail to treat difficult and discomforting situations as the opportunities for improvement that they can in fact be. In contrast, adherents of “incremental theory,” people who believe human traits are malleable, look for ways to better themselves, which includes acknowledging their missteps and showing contrition. So think like an incremental theorist and use your apology as a way of developing your resources of fortitude and virtue.

If all goes well, what should you hope for after you give an apology? Most likely, you want to be granted a clean slate and for life to return to normal.

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