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Simple Jury Persuasion: “I transgressed. Please forgive me.”

Friday, October 28, 2011
posted by Rita Handrich

Oh, would that it were so easy. The issue of apology and litigation has been written and talked about for years. It’s a good thing. It’s a bad thing. There are no shortage of opinions. But the salient issue is the repair of trust. And now, we have some international studies on how the audience perceives your apology. Audience perception makes all the difference in whether the apology is seen as sincere and therefore, accepted.

Researchers investigated what they call “substantive efforts to repair trust”. That is, they studied those efforts that go beyond mere apology for behavior. To do this, they conducted four studies.

In the first two studies, participants made trust-related decisions in a game with a virtual partner who would ultimately violate their trust by keeping all the money they had earned together in prior rounds of the game.

In the second two studies, researchers asked participants to give their opinion of a fictional CEO who asked employees to take a pay cut but then failed to follow through on his own promise to refuse dividends on his stock holdings.

What these researchers found is truly what Mom would have predicted. Winning back trust after transgression is best achieved through true contrition. And what defines true contrition in this research?

It’s all about how the audience perceives your apology. They need to have a sense of sincere repentance and see your plan for follow-through so they can trust that you are unlikely to hurt them again by violating their trust. In other words, they want to believe you have changed and they want your future behavior to be transparent.

In a brief list, the most effective way to repair trust after a transgression is to incorporate the following into your apology:

You regret your actions.

You are committed to changing your behavior.

You resolve to act differently in the future.

The other major finding of this study is that if your response and promises of different behavior in the future is seen as voluntary—that goes much further with your audience’s assessment of your sincerity than if your response is seen as involuntary.

When your response is involuntary—we think what you are really sorry about is that you got caught.

When we perceive your response as voluntary, we think maybe you have changed and are truly remorseful.

One lesson for litigation advocacy in this research is the importance of a fast, a thorough, and a voluntary response. If you wait to see which way public opinion is leaning and then apologize only if you need to apologize—your response is going to be seen as involuntary.  If you wait until you are caught before you admit the error—it isn’t seen as much of an apology.  On the other hand, if right after realizing your transgression you apologize for your bad behavior, you will be seen as behaving voluntarily and therefore, as more likely sincere in your wish to change.

It’s hard to foresee the future and predicting how to respond is a dicey proposition. Better to avoid bad behavior (!) and, if not, to address the behavior in a way that leaves your audience in a position of receiving your apology with the least possible suspicion. Early and authentic apologies will do the most good.  And if you happen to be heading to trial over the conduct, the more time that passes between the apology and the opening statement, the better.

Kurt T. Dirks, Peter H. Kim, Donald L. Ferrin, & Cecily D. Cooper (2011). Understanding the effects of substantive responses on trust following a transgression. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 114, 87-103


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