The Science Of I’m Sorry

The Science Of I'm Sorry
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How an apology helps to restore relations.

Many of us have been raised to think that anger is a bad thing. Something that should be avoided at all costs. In this post we discuss how it may be a good friend, to be nurtured and cultivated and when and how it may be avoided when things go south.

First a few words about emotions in general. There was a time when emotions were considered a distraction, things that prevent us from being rational, thinking objectively, making good decisions and executing them. Thanks to the many studies in recent years that all has changed. We now have a fair idea of the role of emotions in decision making, planning, even sticking to those plans and decisions and updating them where necessary.

At the core, all emotions (fear, happiness, disgust, anxiety, surprise et. al) play an important role to help us to survive and thrive. And this implies taking decisions in our self interest. Personal to us as an individual or to a community depending upon how we identify ourselves belonging to a particular group in a given context (Self Identity).

Now coming back to the topic, Anger is one of the most studied emotions by behavioral and neuroscientists. It’s easy to synthesize and measure anger in a lab. There are a few things research tells us about anger.

1. The word Anger covers a vast spectrum of emotions of varying intensities ranging from mild irritation to annoyance, aggression all the way up to hostility and then fury and rage. Unlike some other emotions like disgust, Anger is not a learnt emotion. Not something we learn as we grow, but we are very much born with it. Even a 5 days old baby who is playfully waving its hands and legs, if you try to hold its feet and pin it down even for a few seconds would show all the classic symptoms of anger. It’s face becomes red, heart beat goes up and the other physiological and neurochemical changes that may be measured in a lab.

Milder forms of anger such as aggression are very much useful and provide the much needed strength and motivation to overcome obstacles. Anger is an emotion that starts to impair our sense of risk and pain by releasing natural painkillers and other suppressants into the system. That is why a hurt player or a wounded soldier would sometime get aggressive, perhaps even be considered a daredevil (in hindsight) and do something quite dramatic in the face of all odds, fighting and winning against more powerful opponents.

But when the intensity of anger crosses into the domain of hostility, fury or rage, there is a complete breakdown of our sense of risk, pain, physical and mental awareness. And that is, when bad things start to happen.

2. The underpinnings of anger lies in our sense of fairness. An obligation or desire to set right what has been wronged. Anger cannot arise or sustain without the presence of a retribution component to punish the perpetrator for the undesirable act, which we think was unfair or did not fit our moral code (however convoluted or illogical that might appear to someone else). The tendency is to punish the agent sometime physically; sometimes just cognitively by inducing the emotions of sadness, shame, guilt, even fear. The objective: to prevent a repeat of any future such transgression.

3. Anger is always directed towards an intelligent agent. Someone who we think is capable of thinking and taking independent decisions; individuals, groups of people, governments and like. We may love food or watching movies or fear electric shocks or be disgusted of inanimate things but we cannot be angry towards just things, events or experiences.

Imagine you are in a hurry rushing through a store and suddenly an elbow thrusts you in the abdomen, As you recover, one can sense some anger rising towards this person. Then suddenly you realize, Oh! it’s not a person but just a mannequin to display clothes. We don’t start to exhibit our anger towards the mannequin. Immediately the focus of our anger shifts to the irresponsible worker who pushed the mannequin out there. Now sometimes it may appear as if inanimate objects etc. were being harmed or abused, but the real anger is directed towards the perpetrator with some intelligence (who we think caused the act).

Now this is also interesting and a topic of debate among behavioral scientists. Where and how would anger be directed towards in the case of a mishap in Artificially Intelligent systems: self driving cars, robots etc. Who would be blamed? The inanimate (but now intelligent) car, the creator (programmer/engineer), the owner or the Government which allowed them.

4. The dissipation of anger follows an inverse exponential decay path. The intensity of anger reduces slowly at first and then
much sharply as in the graph  below.

Inverse exponential decay of emotion
Courtesy International Handbook of Anger

Anger and other emotions are like a chemical storm in the brain. Imagine a bucket filled with water and some colored sand-like particles which is then stirred vigorously. Left to its own it would take some time for things to settle down before calm is restored.

Now the question that arises. How does an apology fit into this picture?
We all know that an apology on the part of the offender generally helps to dissipate anger. But how so?

Let’s think from the perpetrators point for a second. What does a sincere apology actually do? Isn’t it just another way of saying that normally I am a good and moral person, but this particular act that bothered you was not so. Therefore a sincere apology, in a way, helps to separate the agent from the act. Once the agent is cleared of the act, anger subsides much quickly.
Roger Petersen and Sarah Zukerman in The International Handbook of Anger describe the process as follows. When offenders apologize, anger, the desire for revenge, and levels of punishment are hypothesized to diminish. The causal processes are fourfold. First, by exhibiting the emotions of sorrow, sadness, regret, shame, or guilt, the offender demonstrates to the victim his/her humanity which enables the victim to overcome stereotypes brought on by anger. Second, the apology produces a separation between the offender and his negative action; the offense is shamed, but the perpetrator is not. In this way, the perpetrator’s inherent self-worth is redeemed and s/he becomes potentially worthy of restored relations and reconciliation with the victim.

The above graph for the decay of anger now becomes something like the one below. Doesn’t disappear altogether immediately. The chemical storm in the brain takes a while to settle down.

Courtesy International Handbook of Anger


To conclude; Anger is a spectrum of emotions, aimed at an intelligent agent, to preserve self identity in case of a transgress and very much essential for survival. The higher intensity emotion destroys our ability to reason. Unless provoked continuously it comes down on its own following an inverse exponential curve. A sincere apology and explanation separates the agent from the act and accelerates the process of restored relations.

Behavior change of counter-terrorism

In the latest article in “Behavior By Brain” series, I talk about the psychology of terrorism.

Traditional kinetic responses to terrorism having failed (terrorist organizations are only happy to have martyrs to fuel their recruitment efforts), there has been a re-think on countering terrorism.

Authorities have started to realize that we need to understand the radicalization process as a behavior change process. While efforts are underway to unravel the radicalization process, the tougher task is to counter the radicalization narratives.

Fascinating, though morbid,  are the behavioral shifts that radicalization engenders: coping with imminent death, battling present bias, and overcoming hesitation to kill.

Terrorists have been one step ahead of Governments so far. Authorities need to act decisively to expand their efforts to counter the behavior change process called radicalization.

Why we should be more ignorant

Contrary to the popular belief that education is eradication of ignorance, learning is driven by ignorance.

While life-long learning is probably one of the top items on any CEO’s agenda, few really know how learning takes place. This leads to a continuation of flawed models and a replication of school/university systems.

What we really need is a fresh look at learning within organizations based on our understanding of learning. I write about this in the latest Mint article in “Behavior By Brain” series.

When governments lead us astray

Lotteries are also known as “stupidity tax”; a nod to their improbable odds. In India, lotteries are often run by state governments – its an easy way to cover for their budget deficits. What these governments don’t realize is that they are fueling an addiction.

But what are the reasons behind this addiction? In the article, I talk about the behavioral science of lotteries.

Lotteries generate many ‘near misses’ thus making people believe that she is a winner even when she has lost, thus inducing a a dopamine fueled craving. I also talk about the incorrect application of ‘regression to the mean’ mental model, and how governments make it easy for someone to rationalize their lottery addiction.

Read more on livemint site here.

Rethinking Behavioural Science Research

The past couple of years have been painful for Social Sciences, with the replicability crisis putting a dent on the credibility of multiple studies in the field – from social priming effects to power poses and will power. An effort to reproduce effects reported in more than 100 cognitive and social psychology studies in three journals, called the Reproducibility Project, has found that findings from around 60 studies do not hold up when retested. Even when effects were replicated, they were weaker than reported in the original studies.

The replicability debate has been focussed, to a large extent, on experimental design and effect sizes. It is suggested that low-power research designs (smaller sample sizes) and lower or weaker effect size studies were more likely unable to be replicated. Additionally, an inherent bias in publication favouring positive results is argued to contribute towards the replication crisis.

An often overlooked part of the discussion seems to be the social context of the experiment and it’s effect on the participants themselves. Currently, academic researchers are sticklers for controlled design, this way the effects of multiple factors on behaviour can be reduced to just one. In view of this, in most universities, the research lab, usually cubicles/ computer laboratory is a heavily controlled, isolated environment. Having a controlled physical environment, however, does not preclude the participants from coming in to the research with their own motivations, dispositions, expectations and emotions. These cannot be dismissed as irrelevant to the study at hand just because the study has been stripped of any context. On the other hand, they exert a large influence on outcomes of the study.

For example, aspects of the experimental setting can influence the participants’ reaction to stimuli presented by the experimenter. Participants in psychology studies get paid, and are motivated to play the role of ‘good’ subjects – ascribe to what they think the experimenter wants – these are termed ‘Demand Effects’.  Participants consciously try to recreate experimenters’ hypotheses using available cues. Any psychology experimenter will attest to this fact. As a student, when I conducted my research on Automatic Priming, I used the same testing protocol – picked solitary computer terminals, used a confederate to trick participants into believing they were engaged in two separate studies – one to deploy the priming intervention (‘professor’ versus ‘hooligan’) and another to study the effect it had on knowledge (IQ test). We did probe participants on what they thought the experiment was about and so on, but at the end of the day, the truth is that most participants had their own hypotheses about what we were trying to prove and played up to their hypotheses. Experimenters themselves unwittingly influence participants with their expectations – which participants want to play up to, dubbed ‘Experimenter Effects’.

Psychology is the study of human behaviour – in our anxiety to ensure that it is a strict science, we are using the same experimental models that we use to study physics to study human behaviour. It is time psychology experiments stop treating participants as passive receptors of stimuli. What we want to study are the motivations, the emotions, the beliefs and dispositions for different contexts – why try to make the participants leave those behind at home (which they won’t anyway). Our research will be richer if we simulate the real-life context that we are trying to study, rather than control for it, so the decisions and outcomes of research will be closer to home.

Research at FinalMile attempts todo just this. With our EthnoLab, we simulate real-life contexts as far as possible – we want the decisions in the Ethnolab to reflect decisions taken in real life, not create an alien context which leads to perceived ‘correct answers’. This might mean recreating the real-life environment – either physically, or virtually. The EthnoLab marries the practicality of a controlled laboratory with the ‘real-life’ness of Ethnography. As Smith and Semin (2004) put it :  “The true strength of the laboratory is not its supposed insulation of behavior from context effects, but its flexibility in allowing experimenters to construct very different types of contexts, suited to test different types of hypotheses.” Welcome to Behavioural research v2.0!

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