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The Power of Sorry

Posted Jun 02 2009 4:41pm

sorry The Child Psychology Research Blog is posting a series of reports on research presented at the Annual Convention of the Association for Psychological Science.  The latest post, highly recommended, is about the effects of apologies on children’s emotions.

The post describes in detail the study methodology and results so I won’t rehash those here, but one finding from the study in particular I think merits more discussion:

Receiving an apology makes the recipient feel better by affecting the recipient’s perception of the wrongdoer’s emotions.

In other words, children in the study who received an apology felt better afterward because the apology indicated that the other person felt bad about what he or she did. Sounds simple enough. From the result, the author draws this conclusion:

It is likely that apologies work because the apology and our perception of the other child’s sadness tell us something about how fair and predictable is our world. That is, thinking that the other child feels sad: 1) may affect our attributions so that we may no longer think that the other child is mean or did it on purpose, or at least not without realizing that it was the wrong thing to do. 2) knowing that the other person agrees that it was the wrong thing to do reaffirms our view of the world as just and predictable, since the other’s sadness tells us that people in general don’t do things like this, because after all, it was the wrong thing to do.

This strikes me as important, if for no other reason than the dual nature of the statement. One one hand, it’s a positive that something as simple as an apology can affirm a view of the world as just and predictable – but on the other hand, the world isn’t just and predictable.  Yet it would be the pinnacle of cynicism to propose that children are deluded by apologies into believing that the world they’re entering is more gentle and orderly than it really is. 

Which makes me wonder, if this conclusion is correct, then are the civil rudiments of human social behavior (like apologizing) a way of keeping each other sane, since an unmitigated appreciation of how unpredictable the world really is would push us closer to the edge of the abyss?  When you apologize to someone, maybe you’re acting as a temporary life preserver whether or not you truly feel bad about what you did.  It seems from this study that we arrive in the world with neural wiring predisposing us to wanting apologies from others, but also to giving apologies to others: both actions provide a benefit.

Then again, there’s this study suggesting that an apology may actually be an obstacle to forgiveness. Go figure.

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