By William Whitney, published on January 1, 2004 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
A key ingredient to a sincere apology is an admission of guilt:
exactly what conventional legal wisdom claims a defendant in court would
be smart to avoid. However a recent study reveals that a full apology is
more likely to result in the quick settlement of lawsuits.
Jennifer Robbennolt, a law professor at the University of Missouri,
Columbia, presented some 145 people, ages 21 to 70, with variations on
the same hypothetical accident scenario: Subjects had been injured in a
collision with a bicyclist and had been offered a settlement that covered
only their medical costs.
When the bicyclist didn’t apologize, 52 percent said that
they would accept the money. If a full apology was presented, the number
jumped to 73 percent. And when the bicyclist offered only a partial
apology, in which he did not accept fault for the collision, only 35
percent of subjects accepted the proposed settlement.
Robbennolt argues that the different responses suggest that people
find a partial mea culpa insufficient because injured parties want to
know that the other person understands what he did wrong. She says
plaintiffs want to know that the defendant is less likely to repeat his
Although apologies may be of use in settling disputes, Robbennolt
found that repentance can influence settlement in complex ways. When she
changed the scenario so that the evidence of who was at fault was
ambiguous, subjects perceived a partial apology as preferable to no
apology. Her results also indicated that the nature of the injury
mattered; the more severe the injury, the more subjects thought the
bicyclist needed to apologize.
The study will be published in the
Michigan Law Review.