Research Examines How to Give an Effective Intergroup Apology - Pollack Peacebuilding Systems

Summary of:

Nunney, S. J., & Manstead, A. S. R. (2021). Improving the effectiveness of intergroup apologies: The role of apology content and moral emotions. Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology. Advance online publication.

Background & Theory:

Past research has indicated that while apologies can be useful for interpersonal forgiveness, people are more skeptical of the effectiveness of an apology in an intergroup context. This study examines the factors that can increase the effectiveness of an intergroup apology.

Question(s):

Research was conducted by Samuel J. Nunney and Antony S. R. Manstead in “Improving the effectiveness of intergroup apologies: The role of apology content and moral emotions” (2021) to answer the following questions:

    1. How do various apology factors (structural, relational, & identity related) impact the effectiveness of an apology in an intergroup context?
    2. How does the presence of remorse impact the effectiveness of an intergroup apology?

Methods:

Research was completed in the context of “The Troubles” Northern Ireland intergroup conflict and was completed in the form of three studies which are highlighted below. All participants were at least 35 years old and located in mainland Great Britain, meaning they were at least 18 years old when “The Good Friday Agreement” was signed, ending “The Troubles.”

It is helpful to understand that this study took from Nadler & Shnabel’s (2015) model of intergroup reconciliation, which suggests genuine reconciliation between groups requires structural, relational, and identity-related changes.

Study 1
260 participants were given a basic description of “The Troubles” to read, as well as a description of the perpetrator that would be giving an apology to read. The description of the perpetrator highlighted whether the apology would be coming from a large group (Irish Republican Army), small group (Irish National Liberation Army), or an individual (a republican soldier).

After reading their given description, participants were given one of three apologies, each tailored to emphasize either the structural, relational, or identity-related changes that the perpetrator was willing to make. After reading this, participants were given a survey, measuring willingness to forgive and positive perceptions of the perpetrator.

Study 2
180 participants were asked to read a modified version of the Irish Republican Army’s original apology. In the apology condition, this included an additional paragraph at the end of the apology that was composed of all three factors mentioned above. This study also included a high remorse condition, whereby intensifying words were added to the apology to express greater remorse. The participants were then given a survey, identical to the one in Study 1.

Study 3
Study 3 aimed to make cleaner the separation of the two manipulations (apology factors & remorse) to gain insight into the findings of Study 2. This included separate shame expression and guilt expression conditions, along with a control condition. 280 participants were assigned to one of six conditions broken up by the presence or absence of apology factors and the presence or absence of guilt and shame, with a no-emotion control condition as well. The measures of this study were nearly identical to those in Study 2.

Results:

From the first study, the authors found that apologies offered by an individual were far more effective than those offered by a group. There was no significant difference between the two group conditions and the size of the group seemed to be irrelevant. Interestingly, it was found that when a large group gave the apology, the structural apology elicited higher positive perceptions from participants than the relational apology.

The second study elicited an interesting result: As expected, the inclusion of all three apology factors elicited greater positive perceptions but were stronger when there was no enhancement of remorse. However, participants given the condition absent of the apology factors, higher remorse enhanced level of forgiveness and positive perceptions. This study additionally found that like Study 1, positive perceptions of the perpetrator fully mediated the impact of the apology factors on forgiveness.

The third study found that inclusion of apology factors and emotional expression led to a non-significant higher willingness to forgive by participants. Positive perceptions of the apologizer were greater when apology factors were included and when shame was expressed. Guilt, however, did not significantly impact positive perceptions.

What We Can Learn:

Looking over this research, we can take away the following key insights:

  • This study found that including structural, relational, and identity-related factors into an intergroup apology leads to greater willingness to forgive and greater positive perceptions of the perpetrator.
  • One interesting finding this study brings to light is that when large groups are apologizing, it may be more effective to give an apology focused on promoting equality and reparations rather than expressions of rebuilding trust. Such an apology leads to greater trust from the receiver.

Final Takeaways

For Consultants: Understanding the elements of what makes an effective apology is important when teaching effective conflict resolution. Keep in mind that addressing structural, relational, and identity-related factors in an apology can make it more effective.

For Everyone: Consider how this study can help you better understand how to give an apology, especially in the workplace.

Noah Shaw

Noah is the Peace Operations Coordinator at Pollack Peacebuilding Systems and holds a Master's in Dispute Resolution from the Pepperdine University Caruso School of Law.

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