Steve MehtaBy Steven G. Mehta


There has been substantial research on the issue of favors and likelihood of increasing compliance.  In addition, there is also a lot of research on the effect of an apology after a transgression.   But there has been very little research on what effect, if any,  an apology has on increasing compliance when there is no transgression.

Researcher Ryan Goei and others researched the “effects of favor and apology on compliance and to explain any potential effect” relating to indebtedness, liking or gratitude.  The researchers explained that research has clearly shown that doing someone a favor will increase the likelihood that the other person will comply with a request of yours.  Moreover, apologies are intended to acknowledge responsibility and  regret for a violation.

In this experiment, the researchers tested the effect of an apology for not providing an unsolicited favor to a stranger.  The experimenters left the room in which the subject was present.  A few minutes later, the experimenter would return with a drink and then either make no comment regarding not bringing the other person a drink, would bring a drink, or would make an apology for not having brought the subject a drink (even though it was not requested by the subject).  Later in the experiment, the researchers would ask the subject to buy a raffle ticket.

The researchers found as follows:

  • Apology has a positive affect on liking. This disproves the argument that apologizing would actually decrease liking. However, when the apology was given with a statement that did not benefit the requestor, liking by itself did not increase compliance with the request.  
  • Indebtness did not have anything to do with increasing liking or creating compliance. The experiment suggests that gratitude and liking will play a role, but not indebtedness.   (this is contrary to quite a few researchers including Robert Cialdini)
  • When the compliance seeking message included gain to the person requesting the compliance, the apology which created liking did increase the compliance rate of the subject.
  • When the request seeks to benefit someone else, then the subject’s gratitude will influence compliance; but when the request benefits the requestor directly, then liking will be the most influential.

According to the authors, “apology might be used to augment compliance rates without suffering the tangible cost of providing a favor – one need only to apologize for not having done a favor.”  The authors did not that the research needs further support and testing before they can make concrete conclusions.

Applying the Research

Negotiators know that liking will have a substantial effect on whether a person is likely to do something that has been requested.  This research also makes it clear that it is not reciprocity as much as liking and gratitude.  The negotiator must think about what he or she is asking and focus on what emotion (liking or gratitude) will be the right emotion to elicit. 

Second, if you can find a way to apologize to the other person for something that is not a transgression, you may be able to increase your negotiating position.  For example, you could consider going to get a coffee with your negotiating opponent and apologizing for not buying the coffee.  Or you could apologize for not calling to share a ride with the opponent.  The apology must relate to something that you didn’t have to do in the first place.  But on the other hand, if you do something that will create the need for an apology, then the apology may not have the desired effect. 

Research Source:

Goei, R, Roberto, A, Meyer, G & Carlyle, K, The Effects of Favor and Apology on Compliance, Communication Research, 2007; 34: 575.