On Trustworthiness and Apologies for Rain

A paper titled “I’m Sorry About the Rain! Superfluous Apologies Demonstrate Empathic Concern and Increase Trust” out of Harvard Business School explains how if you want to be perceived as more trustworthy, attempt to apologize for things outside your control (the terrible Atlanta traffic, the gloomy Portland weather, and so on). BPS Research Digest summarizes:

The most compelling evidence came from Alison Brooks and her colleagues’ fourth and final study in which a male actor approached 65 strangers (30 women) at a train station on a rainy day to ask to borrow their mobile phone. Crucially, for half of them he preceded his request with the superfluous apology: “I’m sorry about the rain!” The other half of the time he just came straight out with his request: “Can I borrow your cell phone?” The superfluous apology made a big difference. Forty-seven per cent of strangers offered their phone when the actor apologised for the rain first, compared with just nine per cent when there was no apology.

The field study followed three laboratory experiments. In the first, 178 students thought they were playing a financial game with a partner located in another room. They were told that on some rounds the computer would override their partner’s decisions. Later, if their “partner” (actually the whole thing was pre-programmed) apologised for a computer override, the participants tended to rate him or her as more trustworthy and were more generous towards him or her as a result. This despite the fact the apology was superfluous and for a situation beyond their (the partner’s) control.

In a second experiment, 177 adult participants (average age 28) watched a video of a stranger approaching a flight-delayed passenger at an airport to ask to borrow his/her mobile phone. The participants were to imagine they were the passenger and to decide how to act. If the stranger was shown apologising for the flight delay before making his request, the participants were more likely to say they’d agree to share their phone with him.

Another experiment involved 310 adult participants imagining they were heading in the rain to meet a seller of a second-hand iPod. If they were told the seller apologised for the rain, the participants tended to rate him as more trustworthy, likeable and empathic.

“Across our studies, we identify significant benefits to apologising,” the researchers concluded. “Superfluous apologies represent a powerful and easy-to-use tool for social influence. Even in the absence of culpability, individuals can increase trust and liking by saying ‘I’m sorry’ – even if they are merely ‘sorry’ about the rain.”

Does this work too? I am sorry if you read something terrible on the Internet today.

How to Apologize

This is a very thoughtful post in which the author enumerates the elements of a good apology:

  1. I hear you.
  2. I am truly sorry.
  3. (semi-optional, depending on what happened) This is what went wrong.
  4. I am doing x to make sure this doesn’t happen again and y to make it right with you.
  5. Thank you. I appreciate the feedback.
#1 is crucial. The person or group you’re addressing has to know that you’ve heard their complaint and understand it. Apologies that lack this element sound cold and disconnected. And this is the main problem with Sqoot’s “others were offended.”  They aren’t speaking to the people they offended. This is just guaranteed to further piss people off.
 
#2 should be unconditional. Not “I’m sorry if you were offended.” Indeed, if you find yourself pushing the focus onto the people whom you pissed off at all, you may be sliding into non-apology territory. This isn’t about them—they’re mad because you made them mad. Note that a good apology is not defensive, and does not attempt to shift the blame, even if that blame belongs to an employee whom you’ve just fired.  If you did that, it’s part of #4, the “how I’m fixing it” part, not the “I’m sorry” part. Don’t try to save face in a genuine apology. Indicating that you meant no harm is fine, but if you’re apologizing, it means you caused harm regardless of your intent.
 
#3 is a bit more tricky. People want to know how this could have happened, but it doesn’t do to dwell on it too much, and this is another mistake Sqoot makes. They probably shouldn’t quote the line that made everyone mad (it will make the readers mad all over again). It would have been enough to say they put something stupid and sexist into an event page which they now regret. On the other hand, you do have to acknowledge what happened and not look like you’re trying to dodge it. So don’t go into excruciating detail about what went wrong with a customer’s order, for example. “I’m afraid you found a bug in our shopping cart” is probably enough detail. 
I could do a better job at offering unconditional apologies (element number 2 above).

Readings: End of the Web, Apologizing, Dubai, Happiness

I’ve been away from this blog for nearly a month, but here’s what caught my attention recently:

1) “The Web is Dead. Long Live the Internet” [Wired] – the most sensationalist piece of writing I’ve read in a long while. Many have labeled this piece on the demise of the web as trolling by the lead author (and editor of Wired) Chris Anderson. Read the piece for yourself, but then read Alexis Madrigal’s brilliant retort in The Atlantic; especially notable is this point from Alexis:

[I]t’s impossible not to notice — if you worked at Wired.com like I did — that Anderson’s inevitable technological path happens to run perfectly through the domains (print/tablet) he controls at Wired, and away from the one that he doesn’t.

2) “How to Apologize” [Research Digest Blog] – there are three main types of apologies, as explained:

The three apology types or components are: compensation (e.g. I’m sorry I broke your window, I’ll pay to have it repaired); empathy (e.g. I’m sorry I slept with your best friend, you must feel like you can’t trust either of us ever again); and acknowledgement of violated rules/norms (e.g. I’m sorry I advised the CIA how to torture people, I’ve broken our profession’s pledge to do no harm).

Read the post to find out which apology to use in which situation.

3) “Good-Bye to Dubai” [The New York Review of Books] – this is an excellent summary of the rise and (relative) fall of one of the most prosperous cities in the Middle East (and the world). The piece is actually a nice summary of three books: Dubai: Gilded Cage, Dubai: The Vulnerability of Success, and City of Gold: Dubai and the Dream of Capitalism. A telling paragraph of how things were built in Dubai:

Moreover, the real estate boom was kept going by a Dickensian labor system that was bound at some point to self- destruct. At the height of the boom, tens of thousands of Southeast Asian laborers, banned by Dubai’s labor laws from forming unions, were put to work for eighty hours a week to build the Dubai fantasy and obliged to live in squalid residential camps in the desert. There, according to a report in the Guardian, they were packed “twelve men to a room, forced to wash themselves in filthy brown water and cook in kitchens next to overflowing toilets.” Before the crash, workers had begun to agitate for reforms; one target has been the kafala system, which requires foreign workers to have “sponsors” to obtain a visa and mandates their immediate deportation if they lose their jobs. A Kuwaiti government minister called this system “human slavery.”

4) “But Will It Make You Happy?” [New York Times] – a great case study of a couple who gave up their jobs and a number of materialistic possessions in their quest to become happier. The outcome?

Today, three years after Ms. Strobel and Mr. Smith began downsizing, they live in Portland, Ore., in a spare, 400-square-foot studio with a nice-sized kitchen. Mr. Smith is completing a doctorate in physiology; Ms. Strobel happily works from home as a Web designer and freelance writer. She owns four plates, three pairs of shoes and two pots. With Mr. Smith in his final weeks of school, Ms. Strobel’s income of about $24,000 a year covers their bills. They are still car-free but have bikes. One other thing they no longer have: $30,000 of debt.

If you’re interested about the topic of happiness, I highly recommend checking out Gretchen Rubin’s excellent blog The Happiness Project. She also came out with a book of the same name late last year.