“'Sorry' is all that you can’t say,” crooned Tracy Chapman in her 1988 single, “Baby Can I Hold You.” But a recent study by researchers from Texas’s Baylor University suggests that even “sorry” may not be enough for a person to truly forgive you. MedicalNewsToday.com reports that the results of the study, which was published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, indicate that people who receive restitution may act more forgiving, but they’re more likely to report that they’ve forgiven a wrong after getting an apology.

What this stresses, researchers say, is how important it is to take more than one avenue to gain another’s forgiveness—namely, both saying you’re sorry and doing something to make up for an offense.

Jo-Ann Tsang, PhD, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University’s College of Arts & Sciences, is quoted as saying, “One of the main reasons for using behavioral measures in addition to self-reporting by individuals is that they can make themselves look better by only self-reporting, although they don’t necessarily intend to lie. And it may be that ‘I forgive you’ is a more conscious feeling if they receive an apology.”

Here’s how the study went: 136 undergraduate psychology students were recruited for the test. They were placed in cubicles and told that they would receive raffle tickets for a gift card worth $50 in three rounds and that they would have to split 10 tickets per round with an unknown partner.

During Round 1, the participants only received 2 out of 10 tickets, presumably with the other 8 going to their “partners.” Some were then told that the partner made the split, while others were told the tickets were distributed randomly. When it was time for Round 2, the participants got nine tickets. Some received apology notes from their “partners,” and others got raffle tickets as a way to make restitution. Then, in Round 3, the participants got to be the ones to distribute the tickets. Researchers then gave them a questionnaire in which participants were asked to rate their motivation to forgive their partners; they also looked at how many raffle tickets the participants gave their partners in the third round.

The researchers observed that restitution can help promote forgiveness but that they don’t always right the scales. According to MedicalNewsToday.com, the researchers wrote that “apology may be needed to repair damage fully, but it may be a ‘silent forgiveness,’ while restitution without apology may lead to a ‘hollow forgiveness’ in which the offenders are treated better but not necessarily forgiven.”

The lesson here? Pair your apology with restitution. In their article, the researchers wrote that this shows that “actions and words speak loudest in concert.” That means treating your friend to dinner after you’ve blown up at her for telling you the truth you didn’t want to hear, giving your guy a sensual massage after a lover’s spat you instigated, and so on. It also means swallowing your pride and saying you’re sorry—and meaning it.

(Photo by Maroon Surreal via Flickr Creative Commons)

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