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Please, let me apologize. I didn’t mean for this to happen!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013
posted by Rita Handrich


We’ve seen a lot of articles on the value of apology for victims (and we’ve written a number of them here) but there isn’t much out there on the value of the apology for the perpetrator of the wrong-doing. Victims tend to want apologies when they believe harm done was intentional. Victims, in this instance, often feel angry. Perpetrators, on the other hand, often especially want to offer an apology when the transgression was not intentional. Perpetrators, in this instance, often feel guilty for having harmed another.

European researchers believed these differing emotions (e.g., anger and guilt) can result in an “apology mismatch” and thus have impact on future forgiveness and reconciliation between the victim and the perpetrator. After three different experiments, the researchers reported that:

Apologies are driven by the perpetrator’s needs and they do not often consider the needs of the victim.

Perpetrator’s are more likely to apologize after unintentional transgressions due to higher levels of guilt.

Victims are not as angry after unintentional transgressions and therefore they are more likely to forgive the perpetrator.

Intentional transgressions result in the highest desire for apology from the angry victim and the lowest level of desire to apologize from the unrepentant perpetrator. A lack of apology can intensify the victim’s anger.

Ironically, the researchers cite prior research showing that when the angry victim receives the apology they say they want from the perpetrator of the intentional transgression–it doesn’t help as much as the victim anticipated it would.

Perpetrators may end up feeling guilt and thus apologizing for intentional transgressions that had unintended consequences such as pushing a friend into a pool and ruining a new smart phone in the friend’s pocket.

Overall, the researchers say, the desire for an apology and the desire to apologize are often mismatched and can result in grave difficulty reaching compromise. Those charged with mediating/negotiating solutions to such situations often find them more difficult than initially expected.

Our mock jurors often express distress in these situations. They wonder why the parties didn’t “work it out before it went so far”. When disputes involve conflict between family members, they always want the family members to drop lawsuits and go to counseling or just work out their disagreements and remember to love each other. Jurors don’t like conflict and tension any more than the rest of us do. They want to believe an apology can make all the difference in the world. The reality can be much more complex than any of us might imagine.

Consider also the import of this for mediation. Thinking in terms of the intangible/non-economic factors that facilitate resolution, this research is significant. The Plaintiff may be convinced that the wrong was done intentionally. The Defendant may feel that the damage that gave rise to the lawsuit was inadvertent, but may also feel angry or bitter that their error has been blown into a character attack. Strategies for diffusing the tension and bridging the misaligned perceptions end up feeling more like family therapy than law, but it is the very human nature of the process. What we have found can help is a mediation strategy (reinforced by the respective advocates of the parties) that:

You are justified in feeling wounded.

There are two issues at work: The compensable injury (the suit) and the personal affront (the emotional barrier to resolution).

The parties may never see eye-to-eye.

But even with the differences in perspective, both sides regret the situation, and also regret the related misunderstanding. Saying something like “I can’t honestly say that I see it the way you do, but I’m genuinely sorry that you are upset. I didn’t mean for any of this to happen” can often loosen deadlocks.

Leunissen, J., De Cremer, D., Reinders Folmer, C., & van Dijke, M. (2013). The apology mismatch: Asymmetries between victim’s need for apologies and perpetrator’s willingness to apologize Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 49 (3), 315-324 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2012.12.005


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