Psychology graduate student Marissa Drell wanted to know: Does an apology help a child feel better? She set up an experiment to find out. She watched 64 children, ages 6 and 7, build a cup tower alongside an adult research assistant, who also built a cup tower. Once the child’s tower was nearly built, the research assistant “accidentally” knocked over the child’s cup tower and admitted what happened—“I knocked over your tower, but you’ll still have time to finish”—and either provided an apology or not before finishing her own tower and leaving the room.
Drell (Grad ’15, ’19) found that all of the children felt bad about what happened, whether they had received an apology or not. But for those children who had received an apology, they were more likely to share some stickers—the unit of measurement used in the experiment—with the research assistant. So, while apologies don’t necessarily make children feel better, they do help repair the relationship. For children and adults alike, says Drell, an apology “highlights something interesting, in that it doesn’t make us feel better about what happened. It does help us forgive the transgressor and improves our relationship with that person for the future.”