Apologies, or How to Make 1 + 1 = 0


An apology can help to defuse anger. That’s common sense. But it’s encouraging to read about research that confirms this fact.

An apology can help to defuse anger. That’s common sense. But it’s encouraging to read about research that confirms this fact.

The research I came across is in the book, The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home , by Dan Ariely, a prominent professor of psychology and behavioral economics. When his car broke down on the highway, he was deeply dissatisfied with the way he was treated by the dealer’s customer service representative. As a result of this experience, he became curious about situations that trigger a desire for revenge.

The specific questions Ariely and his colleagues asked were: Would people who had been promised a certain payment and then treated in an annoying manner be likely to exact revenge by “failing” to acknowledge an overpayment? And what impact, if any, would an apology have on the desire for revenge?

The experiment took place in a coffee shop. A researcher approached each of several patrons and asked if they’d be willing to complete a simple five-minute paper-and-pencil task in exchange for $5. Almost everyone asked to participate agreed to.

Each participant was placed in one of three groups.

  • Group #1 was the no-annoyance, or control, group. After completing the task, the researcher gave each person in this group four $1 bills and one $5 bill (a $4 overpayment) and asked the person to fill out a receipt for $5.
  • Group #2 was the annoyance group. The procedure for people in this group was the same as for the no-annoyance group, except that while explaining the instructions to the participant, the researcher pretended to take a phone call. Then these people, too, were paid with bills that added up to a $4 overpayment and asked to fill out a receipt for $5.
  • Group #3 was the annoyance-with-apology group. The procedure for people in this group was the same as for Group #2 with one important difference. This time, as the researcher was giving participants their (over)payment and asking them to sign a receipt, he apologized, saying “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have answered that call.”

Any guesses about how the groups would vary in the amount of extra cash they returned?

Not surprisingly, the participants in Group #2, the annoyance group, were less likely to return the overpayment than those in Group #1, the control group. But those in Group #3, the annoyance-with-apology group, returned the same amount of cash as those in the control group. As Ariely notes, offering an apology was apparently sufficient to counteract the effect of the annoyance, demonstrating that apologies work, at least sometimes.

Thus, Ariely’s formula: 1 annoyance + 1 apology = 0 annoyance.

As Ariely readily acknowledges, a mere apology won’t always do the trick. This experiment entailed a simple one-time interaction. A more serious affront, or one that’s prolonged, is less likely to be tamped down by a mere apology. Still, if you’ve done a customer or a team-mate a disservice, an apology can’t hurt and might help, especially if it offsets the desire for revenge. Thus suggests the research.


About the author

Naomi Karten's picture Naomi Karten

Naomi Karten is a highly experienced speaker and seminar leader who draws from her psychology and IT backgrounds to help organizations improve customer satisfaction, manage change, and strengthen teamwork. She has delivered seminars and keynotes to more than 100,000 people internationally. Naomi's newest books are Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals and Changing How You Manage and Communicate Change. Her other books and ebooks include Managing Expectations, Communication Gaps and How to Close Them, and How to Survive, Excel and Advance as an Introvert. Readers have described her newsletter, Perceptions & Realities, as lively, informative, and a breath of fresh air. She is a regular columnist for StickyMinds.com. When not working, Naomi's passion is skiing deep powder. Contact her at naomi@nkarten.com or via her Web site, www.nkarten.com.

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