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Saying, “I’m sorry” when you’ve hurt someone can be a hard thing to do. We’re stubborn creatures, after all, and don’t love copping to it when we’re wrong. But apologizing, and meaning it, is a vital part of the forgiveness process — a concept that’s now more understood than ever, thanks to researchers out of the University of Miami, who delved into this psychological phenomenon.
“It’s one of the largest, longest, and, we think, most definitive studies of the effects of conciliatory gestures on human conflict resolution ever conducted,” Michael McCullough, professor of psychology and lead researcher, said in a press release. He found that the most sincere, forgiveness-inducing apologies include saying “I’m sorry,” offering to compensate in some way for the wrongdoing, and taking responsibility. And the reason they work so well is largely based on principles of evolution: the apologies make the transgressor seem more valuable as a relationship partner, and also help the victim feel less at risk of getting hurt again.
“People often think that evolution designed people to be mean, violent, and selfish,” McCullough noted, “but humans need relationship partners, so natural selection probably also gave us tools to help us restore important relationships after they have been damaged by conflict.”
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For the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 356 young men and women completed questionnaires and took part in short interviews about the transgression they had experienced and their feelings toward the person who had wronged them. They also prepared a short speech about the situation, which was filmed, and completed a 21-day online survey to measure their forgiveness levels — which were directly proportional to the extent and sincerity of the apologies. One basic scientific implication of the results, the study found, is that the human psychology of conflict resolution is strikingly similar to that of animals who live in groups.
“Many group-living vertebrates, but particularly mammals, seem to use ‘conciliatory gestures’ as signals of their desire to end conflict and restore cooperative relationships with other individuals after aggressive conflict has occurred,” McCullough said. “We seem to have a similar psychology as well.”
But Los Angeles-based psychotherapist Bethany Marshall, PhD, believes the power of apologizing goes beyond the study’s findings. “From a scientist perspective, of course that’s what they’d find. But I would say that empathy is a part of good mental health, and that could be a part of the natural selection process, too,” she tells Yahoo Shine. “Humans with empathy tend to be healthier and make better choices in life, while those who are aggressive or narcissistic don’t tend to do as well.”
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And having empathy when you’ve hurt someone, she says, is the best way to apologize. “The most important thing is that you feel the other person’s pain,” she explains. “So instead of using logic to explain or defend, look inward to identify why you did the bad thing. Then convey that to them and say that you would like to make it better. That’s repair.” You can make it even better by pledging to behave differently the next time around — what the study authors referred to as “compensation.”
But what tends to happen often, says Marshall, is that people get defensive about what they’ve done, or even mad at the person they’ve wronged. So beware of your response, because the worst apology, she adds, “is one where the victim is blamed.”