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The science behind saying you’re sorry

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Anthony Weiner. Rupert Murdoch. Why do our reactions to even the most direct and explicit mea culpas differ markedly from one incident to another?

This piece is part of this week’s On Leadership roundtable exploring apologies — in light of CEO Reed Hastings’ ill-received mea culpa for Netflix changes.

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings’ recent effort to address customer anger follows an all-too-familiar script. A public figure or institution commits an offense, and then offers an apology to fix it.

Yet as we see over and over again, our reactions to even the most direct and explicit mea culpas can differ markedly from one incident to another.

For instance, before his more recent infidelity troubles, Arnold Schwarzenegger was accused of sexually harassing several women during his 2003 gubernatorial campaign. He apologized and subsequently won that election. In contrast, former U.S. Representative Anthony Weiner apologized in June 2011 for his involvement in a sexting scandal. He was heckled, called a “pervert,” and soon resigned from office.

What makes one apology succeed and another fail? A growing body of research is trying to understand this very question. The psychology behind saying you’re sorry is proliferating rapidly, and there are still many questions to answer. However, it already offers some important lessons that help explain why some acts of contrition work—while others don’t.

Apologies are a double-edged sword. By signaling repentance and an effort to repair the problem, they’re beneficial. But they’re also harmful because they confirm that blame is actually deserved. When making an apology, then, the benefits should outweigh the cost. There is little harm in offering an apology if it’s already obvious that you are guilty. But there’s also little benefit if you fail to make it clear that the offense won’t recur.

Many people assume that if you make the apology more direct, sincere and explicit, people will think you won’t do it again. And they may be partly correct. However, research has shown that a host of other factors often exert far more drastic effects on an apology’s reception than how sincere people think it is.

Here’s just one example, based on research my colleagues and I have done. It turns out that an apology’s effectiveness depends largely on whether the offense is thought to be intentional or a mistake. People are often willing to discount a poor decision if it’s the result of a mistake; they believe its causes will be corrected. But if it’s thought to be intentional, people tend to place little faith in the idea that the flaw will be corrected. This is important because many offenses can be construed either way, and would-be apologizers often fail to account for people’s perception before they respond.

Take Anthony Weiner’s apology, for example. It may have fallen on deaf ears because people attributed his sexting as intentional behavior. Meanwhile, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s actions could have been perceived the same way, but they weren’t. Why? Before apologizing, he reframed the offense from a moral deficiency to a matter of social incompetence. (Schwarzenegger said he thought he was just being rowdy and playful, and had no idea the women would be offended.) By claiming a faulty social barometer, he changed the perception of the offense in the eyes of voters, making his apology more successful—at least in 2003.

But didn’t Netflix CEO Reed Hastings also say he “messed up” and that the offense was “not our intent” in his Sept. 19 apology? Yes. The problem, however, was that the issue he wanted to sort out was not the same one that upset people from the beginning. Customers were not mad because Netflix neglected to explain its decision to charge customers more. They were upset because Netflix altered the terms of their deal in a way that made them worse off.

Hastings’ failure to provide a more thorough explanation may have indeed been a mistake. But what really made customers fume is their perception that he made intentional decisions to charge them more for less. Hastings’ apology offers no plan to address this fundamental problem. At best, it simply suggests that any further offenses will now be accompanied by an explanation. And for customers angry over higher prices and greater inconvenience, that’s unlikely to mean much.

Peter H. Kim is an associate professor at the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California.

Related Articles:

Christopher Lehane: When ‘I’m sorry’ is a sign of the times

Paul Argenti: The art of a good apology

Jena McGregor: Want angry Netflix customers to let up?



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