Empathy means being better able to say you're sorry

June 4, 2021

It takes greater levels of empathy and compassion to craft a high-quality apology. (Pexels/Suzy Hazelwood)

People who report feeling a stronger sense of empathy toward a person they have victimized may be capable of higher-quality apologies, supporting the idea that interpersonal empathy-building techniques could help preserve and repair relationships.

University of Pittsburgh researchers analyzed the quality of participants' apologies in both real-world and imagined scenarios across three experiments involving nearly 700 participants, in what apparently marks the first study to support a causal relationship between empathy and the content of apologies.

The results, published in the European Journal of Social Psychology on May 19, revealed that moment-to-moment feelings of empathy may serve as a stronger predictor of high-quality apologies than one's long-term empathic tendencies. In one experiment within the study, for instance, people who had been primed to feel more empathy toward a person whom they had previously offended or hurt were more likely to write robust apologies in the moment, regardless of relationship type. 

"Empathy has long been thought of as sort of automatic. People treat it as this thing that you either feel or don't feel," Karina Schumann, a psychology professor at the University of Pittsburgh and the study's lead author, told The Academic Times

But many researchers now believe that humans have a higher degree of control over their empathy than had previously been assumed, Schumann explained. "The first step for people is to understand and recognize that this is something that they can work on," she added.

The researchers defined high-quality apologies as those that included some of eight possible elements, including remorse, taking responsibility for the wrongdoing and requesting forgiveness, among others. Those features are important for the preservation of a relationship, as they can impact the degree to which a victim believes that the perpetrator is sincere as well as the likelihood that the victim will forgive the transgressor.

The Pitt team also considered the degree of defensiveness — characterized by victim blaming, minimization, excuses and the justification of one's actions — that each participant displayed, which can lead to less-effective apologies. 

The first study asked participants to write an email to a significant other, apologizing for a real, unresolved wrongdoing that they had committed; participants were told they would have to actually send the email at the end of the study. To accompany the email-writing process, volunteers completed a self-assessment that helped researchers gauge their degree of empathy toward the email recipient. 

A second experiment asked volunteers to choose the likelihood of using different elements to include in an apology to a friend for an imagined transgression. 

In a final scenario, participants were again asked to write an email to someone to apologize for a real offense — regardless of the pair's relationship status. This time, though, some participants were instructed to "remain objective and emotionally attached" and write without "get[ting] caught up" in the recipient's feelings, in order to induce a less empathic state. Another group was asked to "try to put yourself in [the recipient's] shoes," with the aim of increasing the level of empathy felt toward the email's recipient.

Taken together, the experiments indicated that the transgressor's degree of empathy toward the victim helped determine the overall quality of an apology. What's more, those apologies could be mediated by the degree of empathy felt during the exercise itself rather than participants' general empathic tendencies. 

The findings build off previous work that suggested empathy can be greatly augmented by one's willingness to invest energy in building compassion for someone else in the midst of a conflict: "People's mindsets powerfully affect whether they exert effort to empathize when it is needed most," according to one 2014 paper that Schumann co-authored. In other words, even people who have less empathetic tendencies in general can be reminded to show more empathy in the moment, leading to tangible behavioral changes.

Schumann cautioned that although empathy may serve as an emotional aid to help resolve conflicts, it is not a universally beneficial trait. People with an abundance of empathy may be taken advantage of by others — serving as a constant emotional resource for loved ones without necessarily receiving the same degree of care in return. Meanwhile, welfare workers and others in the helping professions may encounter a form of empathy overload known as compassion fatigue — an inability to distance oneself from, or empathize with, others' trauma. 

"It's important for people to be mindful of their empathy experience, not just always trying to increase it and enhance it. There might even be some people who are always feeling empathy. It's always pouring out of them," Schumann said. "And that can create burnout."

An anti-empathy movement, headed by Yale psychologist Paul Bloom, has in recent years highlighted the negative effects of the emotional state, arguing, among other things, that empathy can get in the way of making moral decisions. Still, Schumann feels that empathy has been shown to be a powerful tool to quell conflict, helping build connections between groups who have seemingly little in common.

Societal conditions play a role in our ability to empathize with others. Schumann thinks our current era is one in which compassion may be inherently more difficult to cultivate, with barriers that include a greater reliance on technology as well as a pandemic that has forced us to remain isolated from one another. Yet technology may offer answers as well: When face-to-face interaction is not possible, cutting-edge virtual reality programs may make us more compassionate than traditional screens.

Formal empathy training may also help address more systemic forms of discrimination and prejudice. When over 200 parole officers took a 30-minute online empathy building exercise, for instance, the recidivism among their parolees dropped by 13%. Those officers were also less likely to believe that their parolees would commit crimes again in the future. Schumann thinks that empathy can "trickle up" to politicians and other powerful figures: A society of compassionate people may breed empathic leadership.

But no matter the context, there are some principles that can help people cultivate empathy, such as "perspective getting," which entails asking someone to share his or her point of view rather than imagining what that view might encompass. But Schumann noted that this sort of emotional clarity can be difficult to achieve, especially during arguments. 

"In a conflict discussion, we get really defensive. We get really focused on our own side — our own perspective." Schumann said. "Those emotions and motives [can] take over, and we don't really hear the other person, and we don't really give ourselves an opportunity to connect and relate because we're so concerned with our own feelings and goals."

Although Schumann believes that empathy is beneficial in both interpersonal and societal contexts, there's a divide that has proven especially difficult for empathy experts to bridge — the political one. 

"Some of the things that we typically find to be pretty effective, even in terms of promoting empathy between people of different racial backgrounds — that kind of thing — it's not working so well when it comes to political out-group members in the U.S." Schumann said.

The study "Empathy as a predictor of high-quality interpersonal apologies," published May 19 in the European Journal of Social Psychology, was authored by Karina Schumann and Anna Dragotta, University of Pittsburgh.

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