The Psychology of Apology (and Hugs)

I’m looking forward to next year’s Portal 2 by Valve, in no small part because of the co-op mode where you team up with another little robot buddy and make your way through test chambers. Mistakes are sure to be made, though, and you may end up flinging or dropping your comrade to his/her death. Or maybe crushing. Or burning. Burning is always a possibility. Burning is really unavoidable when you get right down to it.

Fortunately, Valve has included a variety of emotes for your little robots to share with each other, including one that says “I’m so sorry; let’s hug it out.”


Cold, mechanical apologies. They work.

This got me thinking about some research I’ve read on the power of the apology and how it really is missing in a lot of games. In his book, The Upside of Irrationality, Dan Ariely describes a simple and interesting field experiment he and a colleague conducted to see what effect an apology would have on remedying a minor annoyance. They hired an actor to sit in a coffee shop and ask patrons to complete a short exercise in exchange for $5. I don’t even know what the exercise was –something about circling letters– but that’s not the point; the exercise was just there to take up 5 minutes of time. At the end of that time, the actor would come over and then pretend to overpay participants by “accidentally” mixing in a $5 bill with the singles he was supposed to give them. This was, of course, done so that the researchers could see how people reacted to being overpaid.

There were three experimental conditions. In the first, things happened just as I described above. In the second condition, the actor pretended to receive a cell phone call in the middle of explaining the task instructions, and yakked away like an annoying nitwit while the subject had to wait for him to finish the instructions. Not quite as bad as flinging the person into a thermal deterrence beam, but a little annoying. In the third condition, the actor also annoyed the participants by taking a phone call, but afterwords he immediately apologized.1

The results were that 45% of the people in the first, non-annoyed condition returned the extra money, thereby turning down a chance to hurt the experimenter.2 When the actor pretended to take a phone call in the middle of a conversation, only 14% of the people returned the extra money. Surprisingly, though, if he apologized after taking the call, the number of people who returned the extra cash was the same as those who had not been annoyed at all. As Ariely puts it, “1 Annoyance + 1 Apology = 0 Annoyance.”

Why? In a 1997 study3 Michael McCullough, Everett Worthington, and Kenneth Rachal found that a good apology forged forgiveness through the act of empathy –that is, understanding of emotions between the offended and the offender. Ironically, this is one reason why I think the little robot hugs in Portal 2 work so well: those little guys look like they’ll have a lot of personality and exhibit more emotion than avatars in most other games.

Of course, apologizing is possible wherever there’s voice or text chat, but it’s probably not used as often as it should be, and in a fast-paced multiplayer game with lots of things going on, it’s kind of hard sometimes to apologize or even be heard if you do. But with a slowly paced game like Portal 2 or Little Big Planet, there’s not only every chance to apologize for a goof up, but there’s a lot more riding on it in terms of how well the other person cooperates, communicates potential puzzle solutions, or even if he/she drops out of the game altogether. Fortunately, even simple –or even insincere– apologies are particularly potent.

And this is why I believe that hugging robots should be in every children’s Social Studies textbook. Make it happen, Congresspeople.


1. But didn’t, unfortunately, offer up any hugs.
2. Though that obviously means 55% of people kept it, even when they were instructed to count it and sign a receipt saying they had only received $5 and not $9.
3. McCullough, M., Worthington, E., & Rachal, K. (1997). Interpersonal Forgiving in Close Relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73(2) 321-336.

4 thoughts on “The Psychology of Apology (and Hugs)

  1. Can’t wait for the psychology of motion controls. I bet it occurs mainly in the board of directors and involves lusting after more staggeringly large piles of cash.

  2. Hey thanks for writing these articles, I just got my boss to start reading them (the Sept. 9th article) since we were discussing people reactions when they don’t have to be responsible due to the anonymity of the internet, even though he borders on hating video games. Thanks again

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