I am a big fan of South park… On the TV channel Comedy Central they show a double bill of South Park every night and every now and then I catch an episode… This week I watched an episode from the previous series where Stan’s Dad, Randy, has to apologise to various people for his use of ‘the N-Word’ whilst on a television quiz show.

When you couple this with all the times Cartman is sent to the principles office at school and as he walks in he sighs out an apology before he even knows why he has been called there, with such a degree of insincerity that it maikes you laugh.

As with many apologies, some people just do not feel comfortable apologising if it is not truly meant… Yet there is evidence to suggest that doing so actually very good for you… Though maybe not in Cartmans case…

Flowers Say Sorry

A client of mine told me this week that her sixteen year old was bullied at school and the bully was asked to apologise for some of the hurtful remarks made towards his classmate.

In a meeting with all parties, the bully said “no.”

When asked why, given that all parties had agreed his words were inappropriate and hurtful, his response was that he really didn’t feel sorry for his actions, and so therefore his apology would be (in his words,) “fake”. His mother quickly interjected, agreeing with him. She informed all present that she did not see why her son was being asked to make an apology when he didn’t feel sorry for his actions.

In a 2006 research study conducted on the human brain with a focus on congruency between language and actions, Aziz-Zadeh and her fellow researchers, discovered through the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging, that there was a clear congruence in the premotor cortex of the left hemisphere between visually presented actions and actions described by language… Check me out using the big words today (not my own words, quoted from this research).

So what does this mean?

It means that in the event an unapologetic adolescent is made to apologise for unfavourable actions towards others, it brings him (or her) a step closer towards his feelings matching with his actions. For parents who insist on taking the ‘laissez faire’ approach, they run the risk of their child never coming to terms that their actions were indeed wrong.

People who commit hurtful actions towards others, with an intellectual understanding of how badly the lives of the people on the receiving end will be affected, but they simply feel no sorrow for their actions. This is why advocacy groups will usually demand an apology for hurtful comments or actions made by a public figure of some sort; hurtful comments or actions usually directed towards a specific segment of the population… Like Randy had to do in South Park!

While a public apology may seem trivial, it has a powerful effect on the person making the apology, as it internally puts the apologiser at odds with his or her beliefs. The human brain is designed to be congruent, and when people engage in behaviour that contradicts their values, they experience inner turmoil until they have come to terms with the behaviour.

So not only is there some hypnotic effect upon the person being apologised to… There is a big self-hypnotic effect on the apologiser.

Ultimately, the notion of insisting of an apology goes beyond the concept of right and wrong, and promotes a genuine sense of empathy. I love that notion.