Confession session: The psychology of apology

(Please note: The following blog is an extended version of an article that was first published earlier this year in the Nottingham Post).

Back in March 2016, Nottingham Labour Councillor Alan Rhodes made a public apology after the former social worker Andris Logins was jailed for 20 years for rape and abuse of children at a Nottinghamshire care home. Mr Rhodes said: “It was our role to keep children safe and we clearly didn’t” and that “we failed in our duty of care”. Although most of us apologise for all sorts of things each day, it’s becoming increasingly common for a ‘non-celebrities’ to say sorry in a public way – particularly for historical events that the person giving the apology had no part in.

There are three main ways of saying sorry. The first is the apology with no excuse, when we don’t try to justify what we’ve done. We simply take full responsibility and promise it will never happen again. Secondly, there’s the excuse apology when we say we’re sorry but also add it wasn’t our fault. For instance, we might blame someone else, an accident, human error, or a lapse of judgement. With the third type of apology, we don’t feel we’ve done wrong, but offer some sort of justification. If we’ve wronged someone, we might say they deserved it. We might even feel what we’ve done is so trivial it’s not even worth bothering about. Dr. Aaron Lazare, author of the 2005 book On Apology, says that an apology is one of the most profound interactions that two human beings can have between one another

But why do we apologise? Psychologist Dr. Guy Winch views apologies as linguistic tools that help us acknowledge violations of social expectations and norms. He also says that apologies help us take direct responsibility for the impact of our actions on other individuals and provide a way of asking for forgiveness. Consequently, we are able to repair our relationships with those individuals, restore our own social standing, and help ease guilt and/or shame. Confessing and saying sorry is a simple way to get rid of all those negative feelings. The guilt created by transgressions, such as lying on a CV, or cheating in an exam, can eat away at some people for years.

There also appear to be gender differences. Research studies have tended to find that women appear to say sorry far more than men, because men feel they’re ‘one down’ to someone if they offer an apology. In contrast, women will say sorry for things they haven’t done because they prefer to smooth things over quickly and keep relationships going. However, the differences may be more nuanced. One study found no differences between men and women in the number of the proportion of offenses that prompted apologies but men apologized less frequently than women because they had a higher threshold for what constitutes offensive behaviour. Another study found that men apologized more frequently to women than they did to other men.

We also appear to have developed a ‘confessional culture’ over recent years in which celebrities and politicians are keener than ever to publicly admit to their private indiscretions. It could be that we’re more forgiving of public figures and that because we know more about the pressures of fame, we empathise with them. Another reason might be we no longer care because we don’t think what someone does in the private life affects their job. One thing we do expect from public figures is for their apologies to be sincere.

Arguably one of the most high profile examples was former US president Bill Clinton and his sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Although Clinton continually denied for seven months any such relationship, when he eventually said sorry in August 1998, it was seen as sincere and many people sympathised with him. By apologising sincerely, or appearing to, public figures demonstrate they’re human, with weaknesses just like the rest of us.


These days, celebrities are quick to admit to what they’ve done. Lots of actors, comedians, singers and sports people have confessed to their addictions to drugs, alcohol and gambling before checking into high profile clinics like The Priory. For some, it’s no doubt a cynical move to help their public image. By apologising promptly, they’re seen as being brave, and any bad publicity will die down more quickly. Those who offer belated, grudging apologies see their image suffer.

Apologies can also help those who receive them. Police forces up and down the country have piloted schemes where criminals are confronted by their victims and offered a chance to apologies (known as ‘restorative justice’). Many victims say the one thing they’d really appreciate is an apology, and they’re often grateful to receive on. As the saying goes, “sorry seems to be the hardest word” but it has the potential to mean so much to so many.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Bachman, G. F., & Guerrero, L. K. (2006). Forgiveness, apology, and communicative responses to hurtful events. Communication Reports, 19(1), 45-56.

Griffiths, M.D. (2000). Saying sorry can make you feel so much better. The Sunday Post, January 23, p. 30-31.

Griffiths, M.D. (2016). Sorry may be the hardest word but more people than ever are saying it. Nottingham Post, April 11, p.14.

Fehr, R., & Gelfand, M.J. (2010). When apologies work: How matching apology components to victims’ self-construals facilitates forgiveness. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 113(1), 37-50.

Frantz, C.M., & Bennigson, C. (2005). Better late than early: The influence of timing on apology effectiveness. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 41(2), 201-207.

Lazare, A. (2005). On Apology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Scher, S. J., & Darley, J. M. (1997). How effective are the things people say to apologize? Effects of the realization of the apology speech act. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 26(1), 127-140.

Struthers, C. W., Eaton, J., Santelli, A. G., Uchiyama, M., & Shirvani, N. (2008). The effects of attributions of intent and apology on forgiveness: When saying sorry may not help the story. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44(4), 983-992.

Takaku, S. (2001). The effects of apology and perspective taking on interpersonal forgiveness: A dissonance-attribution model of interpersonal forgiveness. Journal of Social Psychology, 141(4), 494-508.

Takaku, S., Weiner, B., & Ohbuchi, K.I. (2001). A cross-cultural examination of the effects of apology and perspective taking on forgiveness. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 20(1-2), 144-166.

Winch, G. (2013). Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure, and Other Everyday Hurts. London: Penguin.

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. His most recent award is the 2013 Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 600 research papers, four books, over 130 book chapters, and over 1000 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 2000 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on September 12, 2016, in Addiction, Alcohol, Case Studies, Crime, Fame, Gambling, Gambling addiction, Gender differences, Marketing, Pain, Paraphilia, Problem gamblng, Psychological disorders, Psychology, Sex and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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