Physical displays of remorse make public apologies seem more genuine, but don’t make people more forgiving

New psychology research highlights the importance of nonverbal expressions of remorse during apologies. The study indicates that people are seen as more genuinely sorry when they embodied their remorse.

But the findings, which appear in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Interpersonal Relations and Group Processes, also suggest that expressions of remorse do little to enhance people’s sense of forgiveness.

“My colleagues and I have spent the last 10 years examining collective public apologies (e.g., when one group apologizes to another group for an historical harm),” said study author Matthew Hornsey, a professor at the University of Queensland Business School.

“Although interpersonal apologies have big effects on interpersonal forgiveness, we just couldn’t find those effects when it came to collective apologies and collective forgiveness. So we started to wonder if one thing that was missing from those studies was the nonverbal element of a public apology: the nonverbal gestures of remorse and humility that make an apology feel real.”

“At the same time there was a spate of public apologies in my home country in which celebrities or sportspeople would burst into tears at press conferences, and we started wondering about that too: do the tears help or hinder?”

The researchers examined the impact of nonverbal demonstrations of remorse in six studies with 3,818 participants in total.

For the studies, Hornsey and his colleagues presented the participants with real historical events in which one group apologized to another or one person apologized to the public at large. The researchers digitally manipulated photos of the apologizers to add or take away tears, or make it look like they were kneeling or standing.

The historical events included apologies related to the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, the SEWOL ferry disaster in South Korea, the slaughter of Jewish citizens in Poland during World War II, and the use of bigoted language by public figures.

“Nonverbal gestures of remorse – like crying, kneeling and bowing – do seem to help ‘sell’ a public apology. Compared to a control condition, apologizers who embody their remorse nonverbally tend to be seen as more likeable and more genuine in their remorse,” Hornsey told PsyPost.

“We found no skepticism or cynicism; no sense that the nonverbal gestures were seen to be fake or self-serving. But the positive effects of embodying remorse are relatively modest in size, and on forgiveness we couldn’t find any effects at all. When it came to forgiveness, it didn’t seem to matter at all whether people cried, bowed, knelt, or did none of those things.”

The researchers were particularly surprised by this last finding, which was consistent across all six studies.

“We kept getting stuck on why these nonverbal displays could have so many positive effects — on liking, perceptions of remorse, empathy, satisfaction with the apology — and yet still have no effect on forgiveness,” Hornsey explained.

“We tried so many different things, examining different types of group apologies, different types of celebrity apologies, different types of nonverbals, making the apology public or private, tinkering around with the forgiveness measure.”

“Nothing worked. In the end we figured that maybe this null result was trying to tell us something: that it was a common-sense stance from our participants — a reminder that after people have violated the trust of the public, it takes more than a one-off emotional display to win it back,” Hornsey said.

The study, “Embodied Remorse: Physical Displays of Remorse Increase Positive Responses to Public Apologies, but Have Negligible Effects on Forgiveness“, was authored by Matthew J. Hornsey, Michael J. A. Wohl, Emily A. Harris, Tyler G. Okimoto, Michael Thai, and Michael Wenzel.