The Science of Apologies

We all know that an apology is an effective customer service tool and research shows this is true. On the Acceptance of Apologies (by Urs Fishbacher and Verena Utikal) indicates that an apology can be very effective at preventing punishment, but only when the “victim” does not believe the offense was committed intentionally. When the harm was clearly intentional, an apology actually increases the likelihood and the severity of punishment. When the intention behind the offense is ambiguous, an apology is an effective strategy. The research shows that offenders primarily apologize to prevent punishment rather than out of remorse, but victims seem to trust that an apology is genuine. While an apology might minimize the likelihood of punishment, if the apology is not accepted, it does not reduce the severity of punishment. It seems that an apology is an all or nothing proposition. It is either accepted and there is no punishment, or it is not accepted and the severity of the punishment does not change.


After an offense with ambiguous intentionality, apologizers are punished less often than offenders who remain silent.


“No other message yields the same effect. We find that admissions of regret or blameworthiness or messages including other content do not have a significant effect on punishment. That means it is not just any message that mitigates punishment after an offense, but it has to be an apology.”


Customers are not looking for excuses or regret, they want an apology. In fact, they want to hear the words “I am sorry” or “I apologize”, not why it happened or that the problem is unusual.


Apologizing does not decrease punishment probability. Not apologizing increases punishment probability.


“This means apologizers are not punished less than offenders who did not have the option to apologize. However, the punishment probability after no message was sent, although an apology was possible, is significantly higher than the benchmark. This result suggests that victims have a demand for apologies if they are possible. Not sending an apology despite being able to do so increases punishment probability compared to situations where apologies are not permitted.”


Customers expect an apology and are more likely to punish if they do not receive one. It is almost as if not apologizing is a second act of harm. People are more forgiving when an apology is not possible, but when it is possible and they don’t receive one, they are much more likely to seek retribution.


An apology affects the event of punishment but not the level of punishment.


“If harmdoers apologize after an offense with uncertain intentionality, the probability for punishment decreases. However, if the apology does not prevent punishment, it will not mitigate punishment either.”


Customers are most likely to accept an apology and thus, would not have a need to punish the harmdoer. When they do not accept the apology, it has no effect on the severity of the punishment. The good news here is that, as long as the offense was clearly not intentional, there is no down side to an apology. The customer either accepts it and does not punish, or the punishment is the same as if there were no apology.


After a clearly intentionally committed offense, punishment probability and punishment level after an apology are higher than after silence.


“We find that after a clearly intentional offense, apologizers are punished significantly more often and significantly more than non-apologizers.”


The lesson here is if the offense was intentional than an apology only makes matters worse, so there is no point in apologizing. The perceived offense, might be a standard practice, such as increasing prices or fees. The strategy in this case should not be to apologize for a clearly intentional act, but rather to explain the reason for the increase or the value that they receive for the product or service, even if it costs more.


Apologies can be a very effective customer satisfaction tool. Employees need to know how and when to apologize, and when to take another approach. Apologizing should be a strategic strength of an organization and should not be left to chance.


Related Prime Performance Article:

The Power of a Sincere Apology