Have you ever been hurt by an unapologetic person? Most of us have. When this happens, it hurts, but we intuitively know the importance of forgiving the person anyway—for our own sake—simply to free ourselves from the heavy burden of resentment.
But still, we deeply crave the words “I’m sorry.” These simple words have the power to deliver nearly instant relief and help us drop our guard. Why is this? What exactly goes on in the heads (and hearts) of people who are at the receiving end of “I’m sorry?”
Researchers from the University of Miami are investigating the psychological process of forgiveness. They found that, ultimately, hearing an apology allows the victim to view the aggressor as someone who can still offer value to the relationship—someone they wouldn’t want to give up on just yet. With an apology, the victim can also breathe a little easier, as he or she feels less at risk of getting hurt again.
For the study, 356 young people completed a questionnaire and participated in an eight-minute interview focused on a time when they were hurt by someone else. They also prepared and delivered a speech to a video camera, as if the camera were the perpetrator.
Then the volunteers began a 21-day online survey to measure how well they had forgiven their aggressors. The researchers found that the victims’ forgiveness levels over time were directly related to the extent at which the transgressors had reached out and apologized.
In general, all the things people feel motivated to do when they harm someone (reach out, apologize, admit wrongdoing) truly do help the victim forgive and get over their anger, says lead author Michael McCullough, professor of psychology at the University of Miami. Humans need relationships, so natural selection has given us the tools to help us restore these relationships after a conflict has taken place.
In fact, social animals, particularly mammals, have been saying “I’m sorry” in a non-verbal way long before language appeared. They use conciliatory gestures to end conflict and repair hurt feelings after an aggression, says McCullough.
The study, entitled “Conciliatory gestures promote human forgiveness and reduce anger,” is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. These findings remind us that even though an apology isn’t necessary for forgiveness, saying “I’m sorry” goes a very long way in bringing people back together.