Want people to trust you? Apologize

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(MoneyWatch) Want to be successful? A thought leader? Well-liked by your peers and trusted by your leadership? Try apologizing.

A new study by Alison Brooks (Harvard), Hengchen Dai (University of Pennsylvania), and Maurice E. Schweitzer (University of Pennsylvania), showed that people were much more likely to lend a stranger their cell phone when the stranger first apologized for the rain -- something that was clearly outside of his control. The difference was significant: Only 9 percent of strangers handed over their phones without the apology, but 47 percent did when the person apologized.

The study also looked at apologizing for a computer override, and another cell phone situation, this time with a delayed flight. In all cases, apologizing for something that was clearly not the person's fault resulted in more willingness to cooperate and higher trust ratings.

Does this mean you should run out and apologize for everything? The authors don't draw that conclusion. But, what it does show is a little empathy goes a long way. Because no one really believes the person asking to borrow a cell phone is actually the cause for the flight delay or the rain -- it's not so much an apology as it is a statement of empathy. "I'm sorry about the rain," isn't taking ownership of the rain, it's demonstrating that really, we're all in the same boat.

But, just mentioning the rain (or bad situation) isn't enough to increase the level of trust and empathy, the authors found. In an additional experiment, participants were asked to imagine they were out in the rain, waiting to meet someone who was selling them a second-hand iPod. When the seller apologized for the rain, the participants were more likely to rate him as trustworthy than they were if he simply acknowledged the rain ("Hi there, oh, it's raining!")

The researchers concluded:

Across our studies, we identify significant benefits to apologizing. Superfluous apologies represent a powerful and easy-to-use tool for social influence. Even in the absence of culpability, individuals can increase trust and liking by saying 'I'm sorry' - even if they are merely 'sorry' about the rain."

So, saying sorry can influence those around you to trust you, even in the absence of any possible guilt. Next time you're caught in a rainstorm, turn to your companions and apologize. It just may raise their opinion of you.

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