apology components
Saying sorry is not enough to make an effective apology Istock

Need to say you're sorry? In order to make your apology as effective as possible, six components should be included, scientists from the Ohio State University have found out. In particular, explaining what went wrong and taking responsibility for it is associated to more credible and sincere apologies.

The study, published in the journal Negation and Conflict Management Research, investigates how individuals react to different types of apologies and what they need to hear in order to forgive someone. The authors had previously identified the six elements key to making an apology work.

They say it should start with an expression of regret, followed by an explanation of what went wrong. A good apology also includes an acknowledgement of responsibility, a declaration of repentance, an offer of repair, and only at the end, a request for forgiveness. The scientists aimed to understand which of these elements were more valued.

'Talk is cheap'

The scientists conducted two separate experiments. The first one involved a group of 333 adults, recruited online. The participants were told a story in which they were a manager hiring an employee for an accountant job. At a previous job, said employee had filed an incorrect tax return. When confronted about the issue he apologized.

The participants were told that the apology contained between one, three or six of the elements identified by the scientists. They then had to rate how adequate and effective it was.

A second experiment was carried out, this time with 422 undergraduates. The only difference was that this time, the students were not told which elements the apology contained, but were given examples of apologies to read out.

apology components
One concern about apologies is that talk is cheap. But by saying, 'I'll fix what is wrong,' you're committing to take action to undo the damage Istock

In both cases, results were similar. The researchers showed the more of the six elements an apology contained the better it was rated. However, taking responsibility was valued as more important ("I was wrong in what I did, and I accept responsibility for my actions"), followed by the offer of repair. Least important was asking for forgiveness.

"Our findings showed that the most important component is an acknowledgement of responsibility. Say it is your fault, that you made a mistake," lead author Roy Lewicki explains. "One concern about apologies is that talk is cheap. But by saying, 'I'll fix what is wrong,' you're committing to take action to undo the damage."

The importance of context

The researchers point out that context is also key to know if an apology will be easily accepted. In both experiments, half the participants learnt that the potential employee has made the mistake because he did not have the competence to file a tax return, while the other half were told he had knowingly file incorrectly and it was a matter of integrity. Unsurprisingly, the participants were more willing to forgive incompetency than lack of integrity.