• Carolyn Prins

Appropriate Apologies: More Than Just "I'm Sorry"

In life there will be moments when we make mistakes, do what is wrong, and hurt others. Recognizing our wrongdoing is an important step towards reparation, but it is not enough to rectify our transgressions due to its exclusion of the injured individual. The focus with apologies should not just be setting things right with ourselves, but rather relieving the negative emotions of the wronged individual, and restoring our relationship with them.

Apologies function to meet our psychological needs by repairing relationships, preserving a sense of justice, and restoring dignity.[1] Apologies and the (potentially) elicited forgiveness can act as the foundation for forward progress and reparation. However, the structure of one's apology plays a key role in the depth and expression of forgiveness. Furthermore, it is within personal and intimate relationships that forgiveness is of greatest importance, and where apologies can offer greater meaningfulness.[1] Therefore, when our transgression unto others has been deeper and more harmful, we must take extra care to express our sincerity and desire to make amends.

In their study, researchers Jeter and Brannon aimed to establish how different types of apologies affected two types of forgiveness: self-reported and behavioural. The two types of forgiveness were distinguished by their differing meaning and functional impact. Self-reported forgiveness can be explained as an expression of intended forgiveness given by the victim.[2] In contrast, behavioural forgiveness is forgiveness demonstrated through pro-social behaviours towards the transgressor.[2] Both types of forgiveness are important, as they serve different functions for both the victim and transgressor. Therefore, analyzing the effectiveness of different apologies on each type of forgiveness is valuable in understanding the appropriateness of our apologies.

To study the impact of different apologies, researchers developed seven different apology "scripts", each of which featured one of the following apology elements:[2]

  • A promise of compensation

  • An expression of empathy for the negative impact of one's transgression

  • Acknowledgement of one's lack of group/team harmony

  • Admission of guilt

  • Needs-based reasoning for one's action(s)

  • Competitive reasoning for one's action(s)

  • Confusion based reasoning for one's action(s)

The seven apology types were tested in a controlled scenario (where the transgression remained constant between trials, and the apology type varied) and their impacts on behavioural and self-reported forgiveness were measured. Self-reported forgiveness was measured by the level of negative emotion that the victim expressed towards the transgressor, while behavioral forgiveness was measured through the individual's future actions towards the transgressor.

What the researchers discovered was that for self-reported forgiveness, both needs-based reasoning and compensation apologies had the greatest impact. However, for behavioural forgiveness, compensation and confusion based apologies were most effective.

When reading about this study, a key point to remember is that our apology may have different consequences based on what elements it includes. The goal in recognizing this is not to "strategize" how we can best benefit by offering an apology, but rather to recognize the implications of our words. If we wish to mend our relationship with another individual, we may want to offer some compensation in our apology. To improve future interactions and collaboration, it can help to offer compensation and explain any misunderstandings that may have occurred.

Finally, I think it's important to take a different perspective on these findings: that of the one offering forgiveness. By increasing our literacy in forgiveness, I think we can better recognize the reasoning behind why it can feel hard to extend forgiveness in certain circumstances. When we understand what is causing us difficulty in expressing forgiveness, we are better equipped to talk with our transgressor and share our feelings and desires for moving forward.


[1] Hatcher, I. (2010). Evaluations of apologies: The effects of apology sincerity and

acceptance motivation.

[2] Jeter, W. K., & Brannon, L. A. (2018). ‘I’ll Make It Up to You:’Examining the effect of

apologies on forgiveness. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 13(6), 597-604.


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