6 elements your apology must include to be truly effective, according to science

Quick, someone tell Justin Bieber: It’s not too late to say sorry, but according to Ohio State University the one you offered up is far from complete.

Scanning the Canadian singer’s number one hit Sorry, we found just four of the six components required for an “effective apology”, according to the study’s parameters.

But the researchers say your apology isn’t immediately redundant if you forget one of the components, instead it’s just less effective.

“Apologies really do work, but you should make sure you hit as many of the six key components as possible,” said Roy Lewicki, lead author of the study and professor emeritus of management and human resources at The Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business.

Lewicki and his co-authors tested how 755 people reacted to apologies containing between one and all six of these elements:

1. Expression of regret

(Yui Mok/PA)

JB remembered this bit: “I’m sorry yeah/Sorry yeah/Sorry.”

2. Explanation of what went wrong

(Yui Mok/PA)

This was a failure. The closest he gets is: “I know you know that I made those mistakes maybe once or twice/ And by once or twice I mean maybe a couple of hundred times.”

3. Acknowledgement of responsibility

(Jordan Strauss/AP)

We’ll give him this one, but we’re not sure we should: “I’ll take every single piece of the blame if you want me to/ But you know that there is no innocent one in this game for two.”

4. Declaration of repentance

(Matt Sayles/AP)

No. Nowhere.

5. Offer of repair

(Yui Mok/PA)

Biebs came through on one of the most important parts of the apology: “So let me, oh, let me redeem, oh, redeem, oh, myself tonight.”

6. Request for forgiveness

(Dominic Lipinski/PA)

“Is it too late now to say sorry?” he implores during the songs chorus.

But, while the best apologies contained all six elements, not all were equal.

“Our findings showed that the most important component is an acknowledgement of responsibility. Say it is your fault, that you made a mistake,” Lewicki said. And the second most important?

“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,” he said.

And if you’re short on time the one element of your apology you can probably leave out is a request for forgiveness. The study found that was the least effective element.

In the studies participants were never apologised to face-to-face, suggesting that there could be even more important factors in spoken apologies such as eye contact and voice inflection.

The first study conducted by the University of Ohio involved 333 adults recruited through Amazon’s MTURK programme. They were told they were a manager of an accounting department hiring a new employee, and at a previous job a potential employee had filed an incorrect tax return that understated a client’s capital gains.

The participants were told the potential employee apologised, and that the apology contained one, three or all six of the apology components. Then they were asked to rate on a scale of one (not at all) to five (very) how effective, credible and adequate the apology statement would be.

The second study involved 422 undergraduates reading the same scenario as the first study. But, instead of being told which components the apology contained, they read an actual apology containing anywhere from one to six statements based on the six elements.

For both studies, the more elements the apology contained, the more effective it was rated. And both studies rated request for forgiveness the least important element.

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