What makes a good apology?

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Danielle Binks

After three weeks of sustained pressure, Bronwyn Bishop finally apologised.

After three weeks of sustained pressure, Bronwyn Bishop finally apologised. Photo: James Brickwood

After three weeks of sustained pressure, Bronwyn Bishop finally apologised to tax payers on Thursday for her $5000 chopper trip.

The Australian people had spoken, she said, and she was willing to accept her fault.

She admitted the apology should have come sooner- she initially refused to say sorry- and insisted it was sincere.

But others were less convinced. "If she honestly believes she did the wrong thing she would have apologised weeks ago," argued Labor MP Tony Burke

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So what makes a good apology and how do you know if a "sorry" is genuine?

Professor Matthew Hornsey, a social psychologist at The University of Queensland, said it was historically rare for people to make public apologies to the masses.

"But the trend for public apologies gathered steam in the 1980s and has grown exponentially since," he said. "We now live in an era where public figures are expected to apologise to the public for transgressions, even ones that would normally be considered a private matter."

As Hornsey describes it, we live in an "age of apology".

Despite having now done a complete flip, Bronwyn Bishop was initially defiant. She refused to apologised and said her willingness to repay the money should be enough. 

But, as Hornsey explains, given the frequency with which public figures apologise, not doing so draws attention. 

"It can become a source of anger even greater than the transgression itself," he said. 

The Age's political editor Michael Gordon wrote that Bishop only changed her tone because she "realised that only an unqualified apology and a display of genuine contrition would give her the slightest of chances of keeping her job as Speaker of the House of Representatives".

Rather than being sincere, it was"damage control 101".

The political saga was just the latest in a parade of colourful non-apologies this year. The most spectacular came arguably from American civil rights activist Rachel Dolezal who, for years, failed to correct assumptions she was African-American. She said "if people feel misled or deceived, then sorry that they feel that way". 

The "I'm sorry you feel that way" cop-out is possibly the most infuriating non-apology to receive, as it suggests the problem is the wronged person's overly sensitive response to the act rather than the act itself.

Research has shown that refusing to admit fault feels good in the moment because you can hold onto an image of yourself as virtuous.

As Scientific America explained, "Inherent in an apology is the admission that one's behaviour failed to align with personal values and morals, as people generally don't apologise for actions they believe are right and just."

But what if these people genuinely believe they are not at fault. Professor Hornsey says people shouldn't apologise if they don't actually feel sorry.

"Many people just roll their eyes now when they see public acts of contrition… it can feel stage-managed and fake," he said. "In fact, the research suggests that one-to-many apologies do very little in terms of promoting forgiveness. I think that's because the word "sorry" has been devalued."

As an example of the alternative, he cites Alan Jones's pseudo-apology to Julia Gillard for what he said about her father.

"He would have been better off not apologising at all than to recite the sorry word and then follow it up with excuses, justifications and more attacks," Professor Hornsey said.

When an apology is in order, psychologists say there are tricks to a good one. In a paper in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Karina Schumann offers a short checklist which includes using the words "I'm sorry", acknowledging fault, offering to help fix the mess, promising to behave better in future and asking for forgiveness.

And signs of a bad apology? Justifying the behaviour, blaming the victim, making excuses and minimising the consequences.

We may very well be living in an 'Age of Apology', but what does it say about our current political and social climate when politicians struggle or refuse to apology for their errors and, instead, it's pop-stars like Taylor Swift who are proving themselves better role models with their genuine acts of contrition?

Danielle Binks is a writer, and book reviewer on her personal blog Alpha Reader. You can tweet her at @danielle_bink