Why group apologies succeed and fail: Intergroup forgiveness and the role of primary and secondary emotions

  • Wohl M
  • Hornsey M
  • Bennett S
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It is widely assumed that official apologies for historical transgressions can lay the groundwork for intergroup forgiveness, but evidence for a causal relationship between intergroup apologies and forgiveness is limited. Drawing on the infrahumanization literature, we argue that a possible reason for the muted effectiveness of apologies is that people diminish the extent to which they see outgroup members as able to experience complex, uniquely human emotions (e.g., remorse). In Study 1, Canadians forgave Afghanis for a friendly-fire incident to the extent that they perceived Afghanis as capable of experiencing uniquely human emotions (i.e., secondary emotions such as anguish) but not nonuniquely human emotions (i.e., primary emotions such as fear). Intergroup forgiveness was reduced when transgressor groups expressed secondary emotions rather than primary emotions in their apology (Studies 2a and 2b), an effect that was mediated by trust in the genuineness of the apology (Study 2b). Indeed, an apology expressing secondary emotions aroused no more forgiveness than a no-apology control (Study 3) and less forgiveness than an apology with no emotion (Study 4). Consistent with an infrahumanization perspective, effects of primary versus secondary emotional expression did not emerge when the apology was offered for an ingroup transgression (Study 3) or when an outgroup apology was delivered through an ingroup proxy (Study 4). Also consistent with predictions, these effects were demonstrated only by those who tended to deny uniquely human qualities to the outgroup (Study 5). Implications for intergroup apologies and movement toward reconciliation are discussed.

Author-supplied keywords

  • Empathy
  • Infrahumanization
  • Intergroup forgiveness
  • Social identity
  • Trust

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  • Michael J.A. Wohl

  • Matthew J. Hornsey

  • Shannon H. Bennett

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