A Critical Review of Official Public Apologies: Aims, Pitfalls, and a Staircase Model of Effectiveness


  • Preparation of this article was supported by a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada to the first author and a grant from the Australian Research Council to the first and second authors.

Michael J. A. Wohl, Department of Psychology, Carleton University, 1125 Colonel By Drive, B550 Loeb Building, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1S 5B6 [e-mail: michael_wohl@carleton.ca].


The world has entered into an “age of apology,” in which governments, armies, and corporations have increasingly begun apologizing for their role in committing historical and contemporary harms. Although it is widely assumed that such apologies help promote intergroup forgiveness, this assumption has not been subjected to a great deal of empirical investigation, and the little research that exists presents a mixed picture. In this article, we present some of the political and ideological arguments for and against providing intergroup apologies. We then critically review the research on the outcomes of apologies, with an eye to developing concrete strategies for maximizing apology effectiveness. Drawing on these discussions, a staircase model for effective intergroup apologies is offered that has implications for social policy. Although we present some pessimism regarding the outcome of intergroup apologies, this article provides arguments for the necessity of formal intergroup apologies and for policy that maximizes their positive effects.