The Power of Apologies

Why is it so hard to say ‘I’m sorry?’ In part two of our series on forgiveness and apologies, we talk with psychologist Tyler Okimoto about the mental barriers that keep us from admitting when we’ve done something wrong, as well as the transformative power of apologies.

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Additional Resources

Knowing me, knowing us: Personal and collective self-awareness enhances authentic leadership and leader endorsement, Niklas Steffens, Nathan Wolyniec, Tyler Okimoto, Frank Mols, Alexander Haslam and Adam Kay, The Leadership Quarterly,  2021.

Embodied remorse: physical displays of remorse increase positive responses to public apologies, but have negligible effects on forgiveness, Matthew Hornsey, Michael Wohl, Emily A. Harris, Tyler Okimoto, Michael Thai, and Michael Wenzel, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,  2019.

The power of grassroots expressions of remorse for promoting intergroup forgiveness, Tyler Okimoto, Matthew Hornsey and Michael Wenzel, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2019.

Exploring new directions in self-forgiveness research: integrating self and other perspectives on moral repair, Mylyn Dat and Tyler Okimoto, Social Justice Research, 2018.

Apologies demanded yet devalued: Normative dilution in the age of apology, Tyler Okimoto, Michael Wenzel, Matthew Hornsey, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2015.

Refusing to apologize can have psychological benefits (and we issue no mea culpa for this research finding), Tyler Okimoto, Michael Wenzel and Kyli Hedrick,

European Journal of Social Psychology, 2013.
Better Late than Early: The Influence of Timing on Apology Effectiveness, Cynthia Franze, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2005.

The transcript below may be for an earlier version of this episode. Our transcripts are provided by various partners and may contain errors or deviate slightly from the audio.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. I'm sorry. It's one of the simplest things to say and also one of the hardest. That's especially true when we're apologizing to the most important people in our lives. When we have wronged a parent, or a partner, or a close friend, working up the courage to make amends can sometimes feel really hard. Why is that? Why do many of us find it difficult to apologize, especially to the people we love? Last week on the show, we explored the psychology of forgiveness. This week on Hidden Brain, the psychology of apologizing. We look at the mental barriers that make it hard for us to acknowledge when we've done something wrong, the changing cultural expectations around apologies, and why it may be useful to think of an apology as a gift.

Shankar Vedantam: Think about the last time someone wronged you. Did they apologize? Now think about the last time you wronged someone else. Did you apologize? At the University of Queensland in Australia, Tyler Okimoto studies the psychology of apologies. He examines what happens in our minds when we apologize, when we don't, and the transformative power of apologies. Tyler Okimoto, welcome to Hidden Brain.

Tyler Okimoto: Thank you, Shankar. Glad to be here.

Shankar Vedantam: I want to take you back, Tyler, to the 2016 Rio Olympics. The star U.S. swimmer Ryan Lochte and one other athlete said they had been robbed at night by armed men. It turned out the story was only a cover for what really happened and that this is a classic example of how we often react when we're accused of doing something bad.

Tyler Okimoto: Yeah, that's right. That's right. First reaction is deny, come up with an excuse, trying to paint yourself in the best possible picture. And it turned out what had actually happened is that he had been drinking, been partying, had thrown a tantrum in the store, had done some property damage. And the security guard had tried to intervene and stop the behavior and Lochte, realizing that this was going to be a PR problem for him, invented the story, put out a statement in expectation that something negative was going to come out about him. And it was only with hindsight and time that he was actually able to step up and own up to the fact that he had blatantly lied.

Shankar Vedantam: So in some ways, this is the adult version of the dog ate my homework. I want to talk about one other incident, Tyler, which I think really reveals the power of what happens when apologies go off the rails. In April 2010, an oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. It killed 11 workers. It ignited a fireball that was visible 40 miles away. This was the infamous Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The rig was leased by BP, one of the largest oil companies in the world. Here's how BP responded, according to news reports.

News clip: Almost from the moment on April 20th that oil began fouling the Gulf, BP seemed to view the disaster through rose-colored glasses. May 13th, Chairman Tony Hayward, speaking to the guardian newspaper, "The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The volume of oil and dispersant we're putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume." Five days later, Hayward again to Britain's Sky News, "I think the environmental impact of this disaster is likely to be very modest."

Shankar Vedantam: “The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean.” Tyler, what do you hear in BP's response?

Tyler Okimoto: Well, it's a bit of a Ryan Lochte on the bigger scale, right? It sounds like the initial responses do seem to be about minimizing the damage. I actually remember Tony Hayward's apology quite vividly. I was living in the States at the time and I turned to my wife after watching the commercial that BP put on television. I remember seeing it live and turning to her and saying, "Oh, this looks like a PR stunt. It's not going to go well."

Shankar Vedantam: So the CEO, Tony Hayward, initially said it was maybe a thousand barrels a day that was flooding into the ocean. But at its peak, it turns out there were 60,000 barrels a day flooding into the ocean, which is really a huge difference. And again, as people heard this, I think they heard exactly what you just said, which is that BP was trying to minimize the extent of the damage.

Tyler Okimoto: Yeah, yeah, that's right. And while I might try to give Tony Hayward the benefit of the doubt and that maybe he didn't have all the information, and maybe that statement was to the best of his knowledge, it is a bit difficult to swallow an error of 60 fold. So it just seems like in his immediate reaction, seems to be more concerned with reassuring the company of what was happening rather than necessarily thinking about what the public actually wanted from that situation.

Shankar Vedantam: I want to play you another clip of the next aspect of the BP Deepwater spill saga. When a reporter confronted Tony Hayward, here's what he said.

Tony Hayward: There's no one who wants this thing over more than I do. I'd like my life back. So there's no one who wants this thing done more than I do. There's just no effort being spared in any dimension.

Shankar Vedantam: So Hayward says, "I'd like my life back," and I'm sure that was the case. I'm sure he wasn't having a good time while this was unfolding, but it does sound like he was seeing the problem through the lens of his own self-pity.

Tyler Okimoto: Yeah, that's right. I think there was a collective groan across the entire PR world when he said that. I can understand kind of what he was trying to get across. He's trying to show that he's empathizing, that "I understand the pain, I'm feeling it too," but the way that he said it and the timing with which he said it, really made it come off as really, "I'm the one suffering here." And he seemed to be more concerned with his own experience.

Shankar Vedantam: We've seen how our initial response to our own wrongdoing is often marked by denial, minimization, and self-pity. These responses often produce an unintended consequence. They make the victims of our wrongdoing furious. Here's a Gulf Coast resident responding to Tony Hayward and BP.

News clip: If you care, stop the oil from coming into our estuaries. If you care. I don't think you do care. I think you care about your image. You don't care about us.

Shankar Vedantam: Now, it's possible that people would have been furious regardless of what BP did. The spill went on to be one of the worst in history. Hundreds of thousands of marine animals were killed. But Tyler says that BP's response not only didn't help, but may actually have made things worse.

Tyler Okimoto: When you feel victimized, and then somebody's response to that is insufficient, it can really compound the negative feeling as a consequence of that. So it feels rather than just an accident, this is an accident that nobody actually cared about. That there is no remorse, that makes it just that much worse.

Shankar Vedantam: As Ryan Lochte discovered, there is a very high cost to not getting apologies right. Three months after the rig exploded, Tony Hayward was forced to resign as CEO. BP's public image took a beating.

Shankar Vedantam: Coming up, saying "I'm sorry" is one of the first things parents teach their children. So why is it so hard for grownups to apologize? You're listening to Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. We all do things we regret or wish we could undo. And we all know how tempting it can be to deny the harm we've done, or shift blame to someone else even though this can often make things worse. Psychologist Tyler Okimoto of the University of Queensland in Australia has studied why it's so difficult for us to admit we've done something wrong, and then to apologize. Tyler, you've looked at what happens when people do something wrong and then refuse to say they're sorry. Tell me about the studies you've conducted and how refusing to apologize can affect people's self-esteem.

Tyler Okimoto: Well, I think we've probably all experienced the urge to not apologize. One of the things that happens when you apologize is, actually, you are relinquishing a bit of power and control in that situation. By admitting that you've done something wrong, by saying that you're sorry, in a way, you're handing over the opportunity for forgiveness to the other person. So it's no longer in my control to decide whether or not I'm a person of good moral standing. It's now in your hands for you to decide whether or not I'm worthy of forgiveness.

Shankar Vedantam: And tell me about the experiments that you've done that have explored this idea. The experiments that have looked at both the issues of control and the issue of self-esteem.

Tyler Okimoto: So, we conducted a series of experiments to really try to understand the psychological experience of refusing to apologize. What we found was actually quite interesting. When people came forward and essentially said that I do not apologize for what I've done, it actually resulted in a short-term boost in their reported self-esteem. They actually felt better about themselves following a refusal to apologize.

Tyler Okimoto: Now, what we did in the research is really try to understand why that boost occurred. And what we found was that when you've refused to apologize, it gives you a bit of a feeling of increased power and control in that situation, and at the same time, by digging in and saying, "No, no, I've done the right thing," it actually gives a bit of a boost to your feelings of integrity as well.

Tyler Okimoto: If you think about integrity, integrity is walking your talk. When you apologize, you're saying, "The way that I acted is not consistent with my values." And refusing to apologize really digs in and so has that short-term beneficial effect to how you feel about yourself.

Shankar Vedantam: Now, you can draw the wrong conclusion here. Tyler is not saying it's a good thing to refuse to apologize. He's explaining why refusing to apologize can give you a short-term boost. When I first featured Tyler's research on NPR's Morning Edition, conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh picked up on the story.

Rush Limbaugh: One of the researchers, Tyler Okimoto, explained his interpretation of the results this way: he said when you refuse to apologize, it actually makes you feel more empowered. It makes you feel more dominant. It makes you feel less subservient. It makes you feel not guilty. As a professional broadcaster, I can tell you that there is an adage: Don't care what you do, don't ever apologize.

Tyler Okimoto: And it was actually quite interesting. My mother called me and said that my aunt had heard about my research on the radio and was so proud of me. And I said, "Oh, I didn't know that she listened to NPR." And it turns out it wasn't the NPR interview. It was Rush Limbaugh.

Shankar Vedantam: So in some ways, what I hear you saying is that when we justify our behavior, it allows us in some ways to maintain our positive self-concept. And in some ways it's acting almost like armor. Now, admittedly, this armor might slow us down. It might prevent us from doing some things, but the impulse to dodge might actually come from this, perhaps understandable, desire to protect our self-concept.

Tyler Okimoto: That's right. In the face of a threat, you know, our natural, psychological reaction is to protect the self. The challenge then is that our self-concept is also not just about who we are as individuals, but also our relationships and how we engage with other people, and who we are as a group member, and our immediate reaction to protect ourself, our personal self. Sometimes comes at a cost of our social self and our relationships.

Shankar Vedantam: I want to play you a clip that I came by recently. The TV talk show host Ellen DeGeneres came under fire some time ago for presiding over what some employees called a toxic workplace. Here's a clip of Ellen talking about these charges on The Today Show.

Ellen DeGeneres: I am a kind person. I am a person who likes to make people happy. I am a people pleaser. This is who I am. And so when I started hearing, reading ridiculous things, and then it just kept going and going and going and going, that made me think, "Someone's trying to really hurt me." And then right on the heels of that, I read in the press that there's a toxic work environment, which... I mean, I had no idea.

Shankar Vedantam: So we talked a second ago about how we sometimes build up armor to protect our self-concept. But I want to explore the idea that one reason apologizing can be hard is because in some ways we have a self-concept that is very positive. Now, Ellen has disputed some of the charges made about her workplace and I don't want to get into who's right or what happened in this particular workplace, but for our purposes here, I'm struck by her language. She's telling us, "I'm a kind person. I'm a people pleaser. How could I possibly have presided over a toxic workplace?" Is it possible, Tyler, that in some ways our positive self-concept itself can become a barrier to apologizing?

Tyler Okimoto: Yeah, absolutely. We get through life functionally because we can think about ourselves in a positive way and that is part of who we are. A parallel that I like to talk about when I'm teaching is the idea of being a good leader, right? So I think of myself as a good leader, but good leaders actually sit back, reflect and think about when they haven't been a good leader. What makes a good leader is somebody who's reflective. Same sort of situation here. How being a moral person is about being able to stop, reflect on your behavior and come to a judgment about whether or not what you've done is reflective of who you want to be and what your values are. And when that break is there, when there's a gap, being a moral person is about acknowledging that and apologizing if that's appropriate.

Shankar Vedantam: It's interesting then that when people are justifying their behavior, I mean, it sounds like they're justifying their behavior to us, but it seems to me that it's also possible then that they're actually justifying their behavior to themselves.

Tyler Okimoto: Yeah, that's right. When we're being threatened, when we're being questioned, we try to defend our self-esteem because we don't want to feel bad about ourselves. Nobody likes feeling bad on an ongoing basis. And then, when given the opportunity to have a conversation, that immediate self-forgiveness can come out.

Shankar Vedantam: I'm wondering, have you seen this in your own life, Tyler, as somebody who studies apologies, have you noticed that your own self-concept as a kind person or an empathetic person that this is sometimes perhaps kept you from apologizing or acknowledging harms that you have done?

Tyler Okimoto: Well, it's funny that you say that because I tend to think of myself as somebody who does apologize when I do things wrong. But then of course, with the question you just asked previously, it also makes me think, "Oh, okay. So maybe I'm just a self-justifier." I can't actually see. Maybe I'm not good at apologies. I just think that I am, because I'm that arrogant. I'm not quite sure which one it is.

Shankar Vedantam: I want to just pause for one second and flag one thing, which is, it is the case that sometimes people in fact are accused of things by mistake or they're falsely accused of something. So it cannot be that the only appropriate thing to do when you're accused of something is to apologize for it.

Shankar Vedantam: We had a story on Hidden Brain a few months ago, featuring a man named Fred Clay, who was charged and convicted of murder when he was a teenager and he maintained his innocence and he said that he hadn't committed the crime. But when he was finally brought before the judge for sentencing, the fact that he did not express remorse, the fact that he did not apologize for what the court had convicted him of doing, that gave the judge reason to essentially lock him up and throw away the key.

Shankar Vedantam: And as it turned out, Fred Clay spent several decades in prison, always maintaining his innocence. And finally, his trial was thrown out and he was recently exonerated. And it just leads me to think that it cannot be that the answer to an accusation always is an apology. This is what makes it confusing. Sometimes saying, "I didn't do it," might actually be the right thing to say.

Tyler Okimoto: Psychologically, we want to hear that the person that we're accusing is remorseful and that they admit how what they've done is wrong. But you're right in that that's not always the case. And I think this is where the challenging situation that we tend to be in these days is that a lot of these sorts of cases, or at least the ones that we read about, are quite high-profile. And the accused individual is actually being, in a way, judged, not just by the victim, but also by the court system, also by the media, also by the public who consumes that media.

Tyler Okimoto: And the reason why the media tends to pick these things up is because they are symbolic of a bigger problem, right? The George Floyd case was interesting to people because it was about systemic racism. The Me Too movement, the media is interested because it's beyond that individual offender and victim. It becomes symbolic of the broader systemic problem. And they get judged on this... basically on this higher level.

Shankar Vedantam: So let me see if I'm understanding what you're saying, Tyler. You're saying that in some of these cases, the cases themselves become a stand-in for something bigger than just the case itself. But if you're one of these individuals who gets caught up in one of these symbolic cases, it's perhaps understandable that you might say, "Hang on a second. Don't put all of that on me. I'm just an individual here. This is just the fact of this case is all that we should be paying attention to not sort of that grander, bigger symbolic story."

Tyler Okimoto: That's right. In many of these situations, it's the historical problem that is being tried, at least in the public's eyes. We hope that our court system can get past that and make it really about the individuals involved. But when things are being tried in the media, it really is that bigger symbolic meaning that is really driving the strength of people's reactions.

Shankar Vedantam: So it's interesting. These conversations are actually happening at multiple levels, right? So from a... when you have a police shooting, for example, the victim's family might say, "This is part of a larger system of injustice that has existed for many years, many decades." From the point of view of the police officer who did the shooting, the police officer might say, "This was an individual case and we have to look at what the evidence says in this individual case." And the fact that one side is having a conversation about something that is structurally wrong and the other side is having an argument about an individual case, this might be part of the reason we often have mismatches in our public conversations about these cases.

Shankar Vedantam: So when the courts, for example, have exonerated police officers in some of these shootings, people feel, well, the courts now must be part of the problem as well, without necessarily taking into account that what the courts are set up to do is not in some ways try the symbolic case or the larger case, but essentially the facts of the very narrow case that's just in front of them.

Tyler Okimoto: In fact, we've done a little bit of research on this exact question. We like to talk about it as the appraisal gap. What we tend to find is that when you're the member of a victim group, so when you're a woman seeing the Me Too situation unfold, when you're an African American viewing Black Lives Matter issues, that you see in that, those individual cases, you see the systemic problem. And as a consequence, the solution to those individual cases is a broader systemic solution.

Tyler Okimoto: However, from the offender groups' perspective, when I see something going wrong in my own group, then a bit of a self-protective mechanism here, as well, tend to think of it as, "Okay, well, that's just a bad apple." And so what you tend to get is a gap between a victim group that believes that a systemic solution is necessary and really a group-level apology if we're talking about apologies, versus an offender group that doesn't necessarily believe that there's a systemic problem, that believes that the right thing to do is to deal with the individual, punish that individual and to have an individual-level apology. This is perhaps why group leaders sometimes come out and say that mistakes were made, not, "We collectively made a mistake."

President George H.W. Bush: Clearly, mistakes were made.

President Bill Clinton: Mistakes were made here.

President George W. Bush: And he's right. Mistakes were made.

President Barack Obama: Terrible mistakes were made.

Shankar Vedantam: How do these mismatches and expectations shape when apologies are demanded, how they are offered, and whether they are accepted? Tyler and other researchers have found that people nowadays increasingly have a greater appetite for apologies. We want to see people come forward and say, "I'm sorry." But in an experiment, Tyler discovered something curious that comes about as a result of our heightened expectations for apologies.

Tyler Okimoto: What we found is that the same individuals that thought it was really important to receive a good apology were also less likely to be satisfied with that apology. So the norm of apologizing increased people's demands for apology, while at the same time, decreasing their satisfaction when actually receiving it.

Shankar Vedantam: I have to ask you though, because I feel like I can see sort of a flip side to this, which is that if we are, as a society, less accepting of apologies, in other words, someone comes forward, does the right thing, does the difficult thing and apologizes, and we basically say, "No thanks. That wasn't good enough," doesn't that create a disincentive for people to actually apologize? And I feel like I see this in politicians increasingly when they're accused of things, they're increasingly saying the smart play here is in fact not to apologize because falling on your sword effectively accomplishes nothing. Is there a risk that in some ways our unwillingness to accept apologies can perversely cause us to actually receive fewer apologies?

Tyler Okimoto: Yeah. That's a fair point. If the purpose of an apology is to overcome the problem, is to make the victim forgive you, then yes, this does suggest that maybe the payoff for an apology is not as great as we think it is. In fact, particularly in inter-group contexts, these big systemic problems, we do tend to find that apologies for these big historical problems don't actually have that much of a positive impact on how the victim group feels and whether or not the victim group is willing to forgive.

Tyler Okimoto: However, I suppose the other side of this is that that's assuming that the particular outcome is the purpose of an apology. So if the purpose of an apology is to get forgiveness, is to make the other person feel better and to feel better as yourself, then yes, they are losing their power.

Shankar Vedantam: Right.

Tyler Okimoto: If the purpose of the apology is because it's the right thing to do, because it makes you better as a person, because it makes our society better, if that's the purpose of an apology, then it doesn't matter whether or not it follows with forgiveness or it follows with reduction in sentencing, or if it follows in reduction of your feelings of guilt. It's still the right thing to do.

Shankar Vedantam: It's hard to admit that we're wrong. It's easy to feel our own pain, but much harder to see the pain we cause others. The psychological barriers to apologizing make it easier for all of us to ignore and justify and minimize wrongdoing.

Shankar Vedantam: When we come back, why it makes sense to apologize, even when forgiveness might not be forthcoming. You're listening to Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. We've talked about some of the internal and external obstacles to apologizing, why not apologize can sometimes feel good, and how admitting that we have done someone wrong can threaten our positive view of ourselves. And we've looked at the gaps in perception between victims and transgressors that can cause apologies, even genuine apologies, to be ignored or dismissed.

Shankar Vedantam: At the University of Queensland in Australia, psychologist Tyler Okimoto does more than explore all the ways apologies don't work or can go wrong. He also looks at when apologies work, how to apologize better and why we should. Tyler, you ran an experiment that measured how likely people were to think an apology was genuine and you found a connection with the expression of remorse. Can you tell me what you found?

Tyler Okimoto: One of the things that people are really looking for in an apology is a sincere belief that the individual who's apologizing is remorseful for their actions. In fact, judgments of remorse and sincerity of that remorse are really influential in changing whether or not people are willing to forgive after an apology.

Shankar Vedantam: What kind of expressions of remorse did you study?

Tyler Okimoto: So, we looked at a bunch of different sorts of expressions. We looked at traditional apologies. So the words that people say, the meaning behind them. We also looked at physical displays. Things like tears, or things like your body posture. In a way, those nonverbal gestures are apparently a little bit involuntary. And so when you see individuals seeming to lose control with their emotions, with their feelings of remorse and regret, then it signals to us that what they're saying is actually true. In fact, it's so true that they're losing control, they're crying, they're flopping over in a gesture of submission. So that's what makes a good apology, is all of the pieces around it, not just the words themselves.

Shankar Vedantam: I'm thinking of a study by Alison Woodbrook who examined apologies at parole hearings for crimes ranging from speeding to murder. And she found apologies with a promise of good future behavior were more effective, whereas apologies that included an explanation of why the transgression occurred, tended to be ineffective. What is that telling us Tyler?

Tyler Okimoto: That finding is actually quite consistent with what we find in the psychology literature. There's really two aspects to the reconciliation process. There's the backward-looking, trying to make sense and come to a shared understanding about what happened, trying to understand the other person's perspective on what happens, trying to share your own perspective on what happened and come to some agreement about what the offense was itself and what my responsibility was in that. Then the other half of it is the forward-thinking, the future-focused aspect of the apology, which is, really, what's going to happen from now on. What people are often looking for is a promise of future behavior and some action that begins to evidence your willingness to move towards that future behavior.

Shankar Vedantam: Mm-hmm (affirmative). The researcher Cindy France found that apologizing too early can make apologies less effective. What's going on here, Tyler?

Tyler Okimoto: If you apologize in a knee-jerk sort of way, then it really does come off like a knee-jerk apology. But at the same time, if you delay too long and then apologize later on down the track, it really comes off as, oh well, they tried to get away with not apologizing but then finally caved to the pressure. And so there does seem to be some sweet spot about where the apology should occur.

Tyler Okimoto: In some of the research that we've done, we actually looked at this timing pattern within inter-group apologies. And what we found is this problem with delays to where if you wait too long, it comes off as cold and calculated and insincere and you only did it because you had to. But we did find a little bit of an antidote. If the offender group, the transgressor group, is using that time for something positive, is using that time to reflect, then that delay can actually turn out to be a good thing, right? So for example, if in the apology you say, "I know it's been a few weeks. The reason why we took that time is because we wanted to really understand the victims and really speak with them, to recognize and understand their perspectives before we could make an appropriate response." So in that sense, then that delay can be a good thing. But in absence of that, in absence of an explanation, then it can be problematic.

Shankar Vedantam: It's really interesting Tyler, because as you're talking, I'm seeing how complex this issue is, because the line between what makes sense and what's effective and what's ineffective is actually quite thin, right? So in other words, on the one hand, apologizing too soon can be a problem and apologizing too late can be a problem. Some research has found that when you justify or explain your behavior and sort of talk about your intentions and say that, "I actually didn't mean to do this," that can have a bad effect. And other research suggests that it actually is helpful to put context to the situation and sort of say, "This is not what I intended to do. I know that I caused harm, but that it was not my intention." It almost feels like it's for every argument you can make about what makes a good apology, there's another piece of research that basically says you have to do precisely the opposite.

Tyler Okimoto: Yeah, yeah, well, it is complicated. And in fact, this is why I personally find it so interesting and challenging is because it's sufficiently complex that there is no formula. There's writing out there that will say to have an effective apology, you need these five things, or you need the seven steps to this. That might be true in a general sense, but every situation is different and the same apology, the same structure of apology, the same components are not going to be similarly effective in all situations. It also means that you need to... Once you've apologized, you also need to reflect a little bit. Maybe it wasn't good enough. If you apologize, and it's not accepted, try to learn from that, try to understand what it is that is needed, try to understand the other person's perspective or the other group's perspective.

Shankar Vedantam: It's interesting because I think when we see people sort of revising their apologies, our instinct is often to say, "Well, this person is just caving to pressure or they're basically... they're finally being brought to their senses to do what they should've done in the first place." But I suppose a more compassionate way to look at it is to say that sometimes it does take people some time to actually understand what they have done. And, in some ways, the fact that people are revising their positions should not be seen as a bad thing. It might actually... maybe we should see it as a good thing.

Tyler Okimoto: Yeah, that's right. In fact, some of the research that we're doing currently is really looking at dyads, so a victim and offender dyad, and trying to understand how the apology and the forgiveness go together. And what we're actually finding is that we tend to think about these things as, you know, something's done wrong, you apologize, you forgive, and then everyone shakes hands and moves on. In reality, how these things evolve over time is that something's done wrong, the victim expresses the needs that they have in the situation, the offender tries to respond with something resembling an apology, the victim then reacts to that. And then of course the offender then revises what they've said. And so, really, reconciliation is an unfolding process that's about what's going on inside the offender's head, as well as what they're communicating, but also what's going on inside the victim's head and what it is that they're communicating, as well.

Shankar Vedantam: It's so interesting. We spoke with the psychologist Charlotte Witvliet last week. And she was talking about the psychology of forgiveness. And she said almost something eerily similar to what you're saying, which is that forgiveness is not typically a one-off decision. Like someone says something to you, you say, "Okay, I forgive you," and case closed and we all move on. But it's much more of this unfolding dance, if you will, that involves sort of often multiple steps of back and forth and often unfolds over a long period of time.

Tyler Okimoto: Yeah, that's right. And sometimes you don't know what the victim's needs are, and so the offender also needs to engage in that process to understand what the issues are and how to best respond to them. If I give my own conversations with my wife, sometimes I don't understand why she's upset about something. And so my apology might not be appropriate. It's really through that conversation and that understanding over time that we come to realize why it is that the other person is really upset and only then can we respond in a way that is appropriate for their needs in the situation.

Shankar Vedantam: I want to talk a moment about collective apologies and apologies on a larger scale. On January 30th, 1972, British paratroopers opened fire on protestors in Northern Ireland and they killed 13 protestors. The event came to be known as Bloody Sunday. Thirty-eight years later, the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, offered the following apology.

British Prime Minister David Cameron: I never want to believe anything bad about our country. I never want to call into question the behavior of our soldiers and our army, who I believe to be the finest in the world. But the conclusions of this report are absolutely clear. What happened on Bloody Sunday was both unjustified and unjustifiable. It was wrong. I know that some people wonder whether nearly 40 years on from an event, a prime minister needs to issue an apology. For someone of my generation, Bloody Sunday and the early 1970s are something we feel we have learned about rather than lived through, but what happened should never, ever have happened. The families of those who died should not have had to live with the pain and the hurt of that day and with a lifetime of loss. The government is ultimately responsible for the conduct of the armed forces and for that, on behalf of the government, indeed, on behalf of our country, I am deeply sorry.

Shankar Vedantam: So Tyler, you've cited the speech as a powerful example of a great apology. What do you think makes it effective?

Tyler Okimoto: The sincerity that you can hear in David Cameron's voice, the words and fully accepting responsibility. It was particularly powerful, I think, because he was speaking out in a way against the opinions and views of past political leaders to say that "No, no, we've actually looked at it and we are coming to terms with the fact that there is a responsibility here that needs to be accounted for."

Shankar Vedantam: Yeah. I'm sort of... I'm not hearing minimization. I'm not hearing dodging. I'm not hearing hedging. I'm not hearing, "Well, I'm sorry if you felt bad about this, even though I don't think there was anything wrong that was done." I'm not hearing any of those things in this apology.

Tyler Okimoto: The people that analyze these sorts of statements from a discourse perspective, really talk about the Bloody Sunday apology of David Cameron's as really a top 10 apology ever given in history. So in that sense, the words themselves are really on point.

Shankar Vedantam: Yeah. I want to play you another clip of another famous apology. This one was from Ronald Reagan in 1988.

President Ronald Reagan: Members of Congress and distinguished guests, we gather here today to right a grave wrong. More than 40 years ago, shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry living in the United States were forcibly removed from their homes and placed in makeshift internment camps. This action was taken without trial, without jury. It was based solely on race, for these 120,000 were Americans of Japanese descent. Yes, the nation was then at war, struggling for its survival and it's not for us today to pass judgment upon those who may have made mistakes while engaged in that great struggle. Yet we must recognize that the internment of Japanese Americans was just that, a mistake. For throughout the war, Japanese Americans in the tens of thousands remained utterly loyal to the United States.

Shankar Vedantam: So Tyler, talk about this apology in the context of the one we heard from David Cameron. As I'm listening to it, I realized that it surely must help that the person making the apology is not the one who was responsible for the wrongdoing. David Cameron didn't order Bloody Sunday, Ronald Reagan didn't order the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. It certainly seems easier to apologize when you are not the person who is actually responsible for the harm.

Tyler Okimoto: Yes. And a lot of these big historical transgressions aren't spoken about until generations later in the majority of cases. This particular example that you're raising is somewhat personal to myself in that my last name is Okimoto and I'm fourth-generation American. And so, I had relatives that, not were interned, but were told to leave California on threat of internment. And the same thing is true, I guess, on the victim side, in that as a descendant of somebody that would have been affected by this decision, it's also easier for me as an individual to get to that point of forgiveness, because there is some distance and really abstraction of the problem. It's a lot easier to see other perspectives when you have some distance, either for you temporally or in this case generationally. And so it's really not surprising that it sometimes takes decades for states' governments to understand what is needed in that situation. And in fact, it really takes time. We look at slavery as another example. Certain parts of the government have apologized for that, but not all parts of the government.

Shankar Vedantam: In Australia, Tyler says the government has denoted a national day of repentance. It's called Sorry Day. The idea is to apologize to Aboriginal people who had their children stolen from them over multiple decades in the 20th century. The abductions were carried out to assimilate children into mainstream white culture.

News clip: The hurt, the humiliation, the degradation, and the sheer brutality of the act of physically separating a mother from her children is a deep assault on our senses and on our most elemental humanity.

Shankar Vedantam: Tyler has studied the effects of public demonstrations of remorse by ordinary Australians.

Tyler Okimoto: The research that we've done on this has actually pointed to the fact that that sorry demonstration is really important. While government apologies are great, from the victims group perspective, what people want from the apology from these collective problems is really a belief that the offending group as a whole is remorseful. And so when you get thousands of people marching in the streets saying how sorry they are for what happened, that's actually quite impactful relative to just some politician who's getting up there and saying something for possibly political reasons.

News clip: It's an acknowledgment of the wrongdoing that was committed to the stolen generations. It's something that needs to be remembered by everyone. It's an atrocity that happened in Australia's history.

News clip: For a non-indigenous person to learn a little bit history about that, will show you mean a lot to Aboriginal person.

News clip: It can help our people heal.

Shankar Vedantam: You hinted at something earlier in our conversation, Tyler, that I want to come back to, which is one reason to pursue apologies might not be necessarily because they have this instrumental effect on generating forgiveness. Because as we've seen, sometimes apologies are not crafted correctly, sometimes the victims might not be in a position to hear the apology, sometimes the apology might be insufficient to the harm that was done. There are all kinds of ways these misunderstandings could occur, but one idea that you hinted at that's really important is that our reluctance to offer apologies often comes down to protecting the self, whereas our willingness to offer apologies often comes down to our interest in protecting relationships. Can you talk about this distinction that in some ways, the reason to offer apologies might not necessarily be because they're going to generate a forgiveness or get the answer that we want, but in some ways, because you're trying to repair a bond that is frayed or broken?

Tyler Okimoto: There's really two sides, two big elements to what is lost in a transgression. So on the one hand, a transgression threatens the relationship, it threatens your shared identity, who you are. If we're talking about close relationships, who you are as a couple, the values that you shared. On the other side, it also does threaten that status and power hierarchy. So a transgression demeans the other party. It undermines them, it removes control. And so from an apology standpoint, apologies, as a kind of a response to that loss, are an attempt to recover either one of those pillars. So apologies can help to rebuild the relationship, re-establish the agreement, what the relationship is based on, or they can transmit power and control to the other party. They give the other party the option to forgive. They communicate that degrading you was the wrong thing to do. The apology is often the starting point to the conversation. Now that you've actually admitted that something is wrong, now we can talk about the right way to move forward. And so it's perhaps not surprising that victim groups are not immediately forgiving in the face of an apology because the apology is an opening and it's the first step in moving forward towards real reconciliation.

Shankar Vedantam: One of the things that I think I'm really struck by is an echo I'm hearing in what you're saying and what we heard from the psychologist Charlotte Witvliet last week. We talked with her about the challenges of forgiveness and how it's often difficult to forgive and sometimes we look for forgiveness in our hearts and don't find it. We wait until we receive the right apology and often that apology is not forthcoming. And what you're saying, of course, is the mirror image of that, which is that you might come up with a beautiful apology, the right apology, but maybe the victim is not ready to hear it, and maybe it actually is going to fall on deaf ears, and maybe you're not going to get the reconciliation that you seek. And I think a common thread that connects these two veins of research is perhaps the importance of thinking about both forgiveness and apologies as gifts, gifts that we give one another, without an expectation of reciprocation. What do you make of that idea, Tyler?

Tyler Okimoto: A number of psychologists have really conceptualized apologies as a gift that comes without expectation. And I think that there's something really important in that. Thinking about apologies, not as a linear progression, but really as a offering, as a gesture that is unconditional, is probably good for getting them to have positive effects, both on the victim as well as on your relationship.

Shankar Vedantam: I asked Tyler whether he had ever failed to apologize to someone he cared about. He thought about it a moment and then mentioned his 10-year-old daughter, Abigail. He said he sometimes loses his temper with her and then fails to apologize to her. I asked him what he would tell Abigail if she were listening.

Tyler Okimoto: This actually sounds like one of our experiments where we get people to reflect on a time they didn't apologize and so I suppose it's a fair question, because I subject other people to go through this process, which is actually quite difficult. So if I was to offer an apology to my daughter, probably go something like this: "Abigail, I realized that what I said and how... really, how I said it, was a bit over the top. I was really frustrated and angry at the time, which was probably not the right state of mind to be in when parenting. And I recognize that the choice that I made to respond in that way is really hurtful to you. It probably doesn't do great things for our relationship. And I promise to do my best to be better. If in the future I do fly off the handle, feel free to give me the signal that I have done such. I'm sure your mother will help as well. And it's something that I'm committed to improving because I know that it's what's best for our relationship."

Shankar Vedantam: Tyler Okimoto is a psychologist at the University of Queensland in Australia. Tyler, thank you so much for joining me today on Hidden Brain.

Tyler Okimoto: No worries at all, Shankar. Thank you for having me.

Shankar Vedantam: Hidden Brain is produced by Hidden Brain Media. Our production team includes Brigid McCarthy, Kristin Wong, Laura Kwerel, Ryan Katz, Autumn Barnes and Andrew Chadwick. Tara Boyle is our executive producer. I'm Hidden Brain's executive editor. Our unsung hero today is Johanna Ramos-Boyer. Over the past few months, Johanna has helped me coordinate interviews that I've done about my new book, Useful Delusions. In a time when all our interviews were happening on Zoom or other video conferencing platforms, it was a great help to know that Johanna was on top of every detail, so that I could focus on the conversations. Thank you so much, Johanna. If you love Hidden Brain, you're going to love our newsletter. Sign up for updates on interesting research that affects your life, the weekly puzzle, and a moment of joy. Go to That's N-E-W-S I'm Shankar Vedantam, see you soon.


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