Collective apologies: heartfelt or harmful?

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd on screen in Federation Square, Melbourne, apologising to the Stolen Generations in 2008. virginiam/Flickr

Group and public apologies may not always fulfil their desired outcomes, according to Flinders University psychologist Michael Wenzel.

“Collective apologies are made on behalf of one group as a way to rectify and make amends for any wrongdoing against another group,” Associate Professor Wenzel said.

“This might include countries apologising to other countries in the aftermath of war, churches apologising for the mistreatment of children or businesses apologising for damages incurred as a result of their operations, such an oil company apologising for an oil spill,” he said.

“While collective apologies have become very frequent in recent decades, research has shown they’re not as effective as individual apologies because the victim group often has trouble believing the validity of the apology, and therefore the two parties don’t reconcile.”

The characteristics of collective apologies, and what makes them ineffective, will be the focus of a new three-year research project being led by Associate Professor Wenzel.

Funded through a $230,000 grant from the Australian Research Council, the project will look at why collective apologies are often ineffective, and what can be done to overcome the barriers that stand in the way of them being a useful means for mediation and conflict resolution.

“There are a number of reasons why collective apologies don’t necessarily work and we want to explore those dynamics in order to find a better way of going about it,” Associate Professor Wenzel said.

“With collective apologies there’s often one person apologising on behalf of the group which may impact the sincerity of the apology if the victim group believes it doesn’t echo the sentiments of the entire group.

“The other problem with individual apologies made on behalf of a group is that the apologiser might have their own agenda.

“A politician, for example, might be seeking some sort of political advantage so the victim group might not attribute sincerity to what the person’s saying or accept the apology.”

Associate Professor Wenzel said the outcomes of the study could inform diplomats, policymakers and politicians on how to best prepare and deliver meaningful apologies.

“Apologies are almost expected these days whenever there’s wrongdoing between groups so the research will seek to show how collective apologies can be used effectively.

“This will benefit not only the group who is developing the apology but also satisfy the needs of the victim group in receiving an apology that’s perceived to address their concerns, is sincere and therefore effective.”

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One thought on “Collective apologies: heartfelt or harmful?

  1. I have been the recipient of a group apology deliverd by the head of the organisation which when rejected was re-worded and then delivered by a broader membership of the organisation. The first apology failed because of the use of weasle words which did not acknowledge the truths of the grievence and it was transparantly part of an avoidance and minimisation strategy. The second apology, some two years later, spoke the truth but failed because those delivering it did not follow up to ensure actions promised surrounding the apology were undertaken. If you don’t get the apology right first go and follow up with rigor promises made there is no pointmaking it and it cruels the pitch for any further attempts . Think of Japanm’s apologies relating to WW2 they apologise almost annually but because they were not honest and open at the start the value of their apology is zero (pun intended) and contrast that with Germany.

    The reciever has to know the apology is meant and that means words and actions have to demonstrate acknowledgement of fault down to vary specific detail brutally honest, and the actions have to measure up to the apology and if possible go further.

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