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Social and behavioural

Crying or kneeling can help you make a public apology

But don’t expect faster forgiveness.

11 October 2019

By Emma Young

Public apologies for misdeeds can be tricky. The usual advice to companies, politicians or celebrities is to acknowledge what you've done wrong, express regret, and promise never to do it again. However, the public can still often be sceptical and not particularly forgiving. Matthew Hornsey at the University of Queensland and colleagues wondered if it makes a difference if remorse is also conveyed non-verbally — by dropping to the knees, perhaps, or wiping away tears, as for example when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a "tearful" apology to indigenous Canadians in 2017.

The team's set of six studies, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Interpersonal Relations and Group Processes, shows that such "embodied remorse" can go down quite well — at least, among some groups. However, a consistent finding across the studies was that such gestures don't actually improve levels of public forgiveness.

These results are important in part because while some public apologies are minor — of the "TV star admits drug use" type — they are also considered to be an essential part of the process of reconciliation after gross violations of human rights, and even genocide. The public response to such apologies can clearly have huge ongoing implications.

For the first study, the team recruited 196 American and 229 Japanese participants, who read about the real-world apology by senior executives of the Tokyo Electric Power Company in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. The researchers tweaked the texts, so that some read about how the executives knelt to the ground during their apology while the others didn't. The first group also saw a photograph of the executives kneeling, while the second group saw a photograph of them standing with neutral faces.

The embodied remorse group gave more positive appraisals of the executives, were more satisfied with their response, and also perceived less ulterior motive and more remorse. This was especially true for the American participants. However, the two groups didn't show any difference in levels of forgiveness of the company. Additionally, some of the participants had been told that the apology was made in private, to victims, while others were told it had happened during a press conference. The results showed that whether the apology was private or public made no difference to any of these participants' ratings.

A subsequent study focused on the Sewol ferry disaster, in which 304 people, mostly children, died. Afterwards, the South Korean president publicly apologised for the government's mistakes. This study, which involved 207 American and 190 Korean participants, found that crying had very similar effects to those found for kneeling: participants' levels of forgiveness were unaffected when the president was portrayed as crying, but they did view her more favourably and perceive her as feeling more remorse. However, this was only the case for the Americans: the Koreans were unmoved by the tears. Exactly why there should be this difference is not clear.

Next, the team turned to real-world transgression and public apologies in which an individual (rather than a group) was at the centre of a scandal. These cases included a swimmer who'd made a homophobic tweet, a scientist who'd committed fraud and a US politician who'd anonymously made racist comments on blogs.

Again, the participants (in these cases, all American) believed the perpetrator to be more sorry when they were told that he or she had cried during the apology. They also reported more satisfaction with the apology and were more confident that the individual wouldn't re-offend. But yet again, tears made no difference to levels of forgiveness.

Overall, then, showing that you're sorry, not just saying it, helps. Or, as the researchers write, "Put simply, embodiment of remorse mostly helped the transgressor; it never hurt them." Perhaps forgiveness is too much to hope for from a public apology, the researchers add. Depending on what happens next, that may come later.

Further reading

– Embodied remorse: Physical displays of remorse increase positive responses to public apologies, but have negligible effects on forgiveness.

About the author

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest