How to Say You're Sorry, According to Science

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Crafting the perfect mea culpa can be challenging. It’s hard enough to admit when we’re in the wrong—let alone to do so with grace and sincerity. Fortunately, a group of researchers at Ohio State University have identified the recipe for the perfect apology.

According to the study, published in the journal Negotiation and Conflict Management, saying you’re sorry can be a powerful reconciliation tool—but not all apologies are created equal. Rather, researchers identified six key ingredients that make up an effective apology: expression of regret; explanation of what went wrong; acknowledgement of responsibility; declaration of repentance; offer of repair; and request for forgiveness. By hitting on all of these components, people can craft an apology that seems thoughtful and sincere.

The researchers presented 755 volunteers with a hypothetical business scenario in which a potential employee admits to wrongdoing at a previous job during a job interview. The potential employee then apologizes for their actions.

The volunteers were then presented with a range of apologies, worked into the same scenario, and asked to assess their strength. While some of the test apologies utilized all six key ingredients, others made use of only one, or a few. Two of the key apology ingredients were more effective than the others: an acknowledgement of wrong doing and an offer to fix the problem. The least effective, meanwhile, were those that only requested forgiveness.

“One concern about apologies is that talk is cheap," researcher Roy Lewicki explains. "But by saying, ‘I’ll fix what is wrong,’ you’re committing to take action to undo the damage. Apologies really do work, but you should make sure you hit as many of the six key components as possible.”