An apology is more than a word: Effects of apologies on childrens emotions

By Nestor Lopez-Duran PhD

We recently discussed the role of shame and guilt in child depression,  and their link to two distinct discipline practices one that elicits negative views of the self (shame) while the other facilitates the childs understanding of the consequences of ones behaviors on others and the need for reparation and/or apologies (guilt). We discussed how guilt is associated with more positive outcomes while shame is associated with a number of negative consequences. Most of that discussion was focused on the effects of these factors on the transgressor. Bu what about the victim? What are the effects of receiving an apology or reparation from a wrongdoer?

In adults, receiving an apology is associated with forgiveness and feeling less vengeful (see Ohbuchi et al., 1989; see end of post for reference), but less is known about the effects of apologies in children. At the APS convention this past weekend, Craig Smith and Paul Harris from the Harvard Graduate School of Education presented a very clever and informative experimental study on the effects of apologies on childrens emotions and attributions.

The authors recruited75 children (42 girls) age 4 to 7 who were visiting the Boston Museum of Science. The children were told that they would receive a gift of very cool stickers from a child who lives in another city.  Then the children were randomly assigned to one of three groups.

Group 1: Children in this group received a gift envelope but the envelope didnt have any stickers. Instead, the envelope had an empty sticker backing paper and a note from the other child. The note said:

I used all the stickers before I mailed this

Group 2: In this group the children also received an envelope with only the empty sticker backing paper. However the note said:

I used all of the stickers before I mailed this. I am really sorry

Group 3:  The final group received an envelope with the cool stickers as promised and no note.

The authors then asked 3 questions:

  1. How did you feel after opening the envelope? (a 5-point sad to happy picture scale was used)
  2. Do you think the other boy/girl is nice or not-so-nice?
  3. What do you think the other boy/girl was feeling?

Finally, the authors also assessed the effects of the group assignment on the kids sharing behaviors. To this end, the kids were given 10 stickers and were told to share as many as they wanted with the other children.

The results:

  1. Regardless of age, children who didnt get the gift but received the apology reported feeling more positively than kids who didnt get the gift but didnt get the apology.
  2. 87% of the kids who received the apology rated the other child as nice compared to only 37% of the children who didnt get the apology.
  3. Children who received the apology were more likely than children who didnt receive the apology to rate the other kid as sad. In addition, those who didnt receive the apology rated the feelings of the other child at the same level as did children who received the sticker. That is, those who received the gift and those who didnt receive the gift but received no apology rated the other child (gift giver) as happy, while kids who received the apology rated the other child as sad.
  4. Given this last finding, the authors tested a mediator model of apology in which the perception of the other childs emotion (the emotions of the wrongdoer) explains the positive effects of apology.  The model was confirmed; indicating that receiving an apology makes the recipient feels better by affecting the recipients perception of the wrongdoers emotions. So for example, we feel better after an apology because the apology indicates that the other person feels sad about what they did.
  5. Finally, there was no effect of the apology on the likelihood of sharing. All children, regardless of condition (apology, no apology, or gift) shared an average of 3 stickers during the sharing phase of the experiment.

In summary, the study indicates that receiving an apology after a wrongdoing significantly improves the emotional reaction of the recipient, and this may be partly due to the recipients perception that the child who gave the apology feels bad about the action. Some may take a cynic view of this result, interpreting it as hmm so apologies makes us feel better only because it tells us that the other child feels bad, which satisfy our need for vengeance.  But it is likely that apologies work because the apology and our perception of the other childs sadness tell us something about how fair and predictable is our world. That is, thinking that the other child feels sad: 1) may affect our attributions so that we may no longer think that the other child is mean or did it on purpose, or at least not without realizing that it was the wrong thing to do. 2) knowing that the other person agrees that it was the wrong thing to do reaffirms our view of the world as just and predictable, since the others sadness tells us that people in general dont do things like this, because after all, it was the wrong thing to do.

The references:

Smith, C. E., & Harris, P. L. (2009) The effects of apology on childrens emotions and attributions. Poster presented at the Annual Convention of the Association for Psychological Science. San Francisco. May, 2009.

Ohbuchi, K., Kameda, M., & Agarie, N. (1989). Apology as aggression control: its role in mediating appraisal of and response to harm Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56 (2), 219-227 DOI: 2926625