Why You Really Should Apologize for the Polar Vortex

2014 began with a dip in the polar vortex that brought about extremely cold temperatures and a variety of unpleasant outcomes related to such nasty weather. Today, the White House’s “We the Geeks” program brought together a panel of experts for an in-depth discussion of extreme weather events, and how they may be related to broader climate change.

As we continue to observe extreme weather such as the polar vortex, many people are considering the possibility that they are caused by global warming, and thus part of a broader climate change caused by humans. If true, you may owe someone an apology or two.

But there is another reason for you to apologize for the bad weather. If you are planning on negotiating, obtaining trust, or asking someone for a favor, saying that you are sorry just might help you to achieve your goal. A recent series of experiments found that people who apologize for things that they are not directly responsible for fare better in such situations.

Two experiments had participants simply view or read about scenarios in which a person was asking a favor (to borrow a cell phone) or meeting to conduct a transaction (selling an item on Craigslist). When the person asking the favor or making the sale first apologized for an unfortunate circumstance (a delayed flight or rainy weather) they were perceived as more trustworthy.

Another experiment had participants play an economic game in which they could either (a) keep a small amount of money or (b) potentially win more money by sharing with a partner, but also risk losing it if the partner chooses not to share back. Also, the partner’s decision could be “overridden” at random and the money would not be shared. The game was rigged in this experiment such that the ostensible partner’s decision was overridden by the computer on the third round. Partners that sent a message apologizing for the override (which was in no way their fault!) were perceived as more trustworthy, and participants were thus more likely to continue sharing with them.

The last experiment actually had a person approach strangers in a train station on a rainy day and ask to borrow their cell phone. Just 9% of people said yes if directly asked. However, if he apologized for the weather before making the request, almost half of the people asked (47%) said yes to him.

Throughout each of these studies, the common finding was that apologizing for something (even if it is not your fault) seems to work because it is seen as an expression of empathy. Apologizing is a way of saying that you understand how another person is feeling, and expressing this understanding can make you more trustworthy. So go ahead, apologize for the polar vortex. I forgive you.

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