A new study has revealed that apologies are important even to six to seven-year-old children as they are undergoing dramatic and important changes in cognitive development.
Lead author Marissa Drell of the University Of Virginia was surprised to see that children, who experienced a minor transgression and heard an apology felt just as bad as those, who did not hear an apology.
However, those who heard the transgressor say “I’m sorry” actually shared more with that person later. The apology repaired the relationship even though it did not mitigate their hurt feelings.
In the study, the children and an adult research assistant were asked to build towers out of plastic cups. As the child neared completion of his or her tower, the adult asked to borrow a cup from the child, and in so doing toppled the child’s tower. She either apologised or said nothing, and then left the room.
Later, when children were asked how they felt, those who received an apology reported feeling just as bad as those who did not. But when deciding how many stickers to give to the research assistant, those who heard an apology were more generous.
Drell said that even though an apology did not make children feel better, it did help to facilitate forgiveness, adding that they seem to have recognised it as a signal that the transgressor felt bad about what she had done and might have been implicitly promising not to do it again.
Surprisingly, children who had their towers knocked over and then received the transgressor’s help in partially rebuilding it both felt better and shared more with her.
Drell concluded that “restitution”, which is some sort of active effort to make repairs after a transgression, could make the victim feel better because it might undo some of the harm, and also could repair the relationship by showing the transgressor’s commitment to it.
The study is published in the Journal Social Development.