Repent expensively.

This is the take-home message from a three-part study in the U.S. and Japan on how apologies from organisations are perceived. “Apologies that are costly for the apologising organisation are deemed to be more genuine,” found the researchers.

Take note, crisis communications people: Forgiveness can be bought, always.

A previous study by lead researcher Yohsuke Ohtsubo found that the same rule of thumb applies to individuals: Costly apologies convey the most sincerity, and the expense can come in any form, such as a gift, money, a quid quo pro, and/or the apologiser’s investment of time, such as missing work to apologise.

For the new study, participants were presented with typical blunder scenarios, such as a defective product, with three different apologies: A costly apology (“we are sorry and will exchange this product”), a non-costly apology (“we apologise for the defective product”), and no apology (“this matter is still under investigation”). In one phase of the study, participants heard the apologies while undergoing fMRI brain scans. The brain regions associated with empathy and intention were strongly activated by costly apologies, and minimally responsive to non-apologies and non-costly apologies.

In other words, talk is cheap, but flowers, a free dinner, and the overt exertion of the apologiser? Priceless.

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