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Apologising can help settle cases quickly and cheaply, study claims

Date:4 JUN 2010

Copyright iStockphoto/VickyLeonNew research by a professor of law and of psychology at the University of Illinois reveals that apologies generally reduce financial demands and increase the prospects for an agreement in legal disputes.

Jennifer Robbennolt surveyed more than 550 people, gauging their reaction to apologies offered during settlement negotiations in a hypothetical case.

"The apology fulfils some of the goals that triggered the suit, such as a need for respect, to assign responsibility and to get a sense that what happened won't happen again," Robbennolt said. "So receiving an apology can reduce financial aspirations and make it possible for parties to enter into discussions about settlement."

While plaintiffs responded favourably to apologies, lawyers reacted more in line with traditional thinking - that apologies are an admission of guilt that can be used to leverage bigger settlements.

She says lawyers may view apologies differently because of their third-party view of the dispute, or because their training provides a perspective on the legal value of apologies that lay people fail to appreciate.

"Conventional wisdom has been to avoid apologies because they amount to an admission of guilt that can be damaging to defendants in court," Robbennolt said. "But the studies suggest apologies can actually play a positive role in settling legal cases."

The study will be published in Court Review, a publication of the American Judges Association.