Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
May 31, 2019

Grassroots Actions Promote Forgiveness by Victim Groups

by Tyler Okimoto
Silhouette of a refugee family with children

When attempting to reconcile society’s misdeeds of the past, our national leaders often acknowledge the injustice, express remorse, offer an official apology, and make promises for the future.  For example, in 1988, U.S. President Ronald Reagan apologized for the internment of Japanese American citizens during World War II.  Likewise, in 2008, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologized for the forced removal of Indigenous Australian children from their families by federal and state agencies.  And in 2010, UK Prime Minister David Cameron apologized for the killing of unarmed Irish Catholic citizens in the Bloody Sunday massacre. 

However, these historical apologies occurred only after decades of public pressure and the governments’ reluctance to admit fault.  Are reconciliation and harmony achievable when governments are reluctant to issue a formal apology? 

In order for victim groups to feel a sense of forgiveness, they must believe that the offender group is remorseful of its past actions.  However, a formal government apology may not be the most effective way to communicate that remorse.  After all, the decision to apologize can be motivated by a variety of political pressures – such as to make voters happy or to promote trade – and may not necessarily reflect genuine remorse.  Indeed, research shows that apologies by government leaders do not reliably result in feelings of forgiveness among victim groups. 

Instead, victims groups may view more direct forms of “grassroots remorse” – remorse expressed by members of the offender group – as a more accurate reflection of the remorse felt in the offender group and, thus, may be more likely to respond with forgiveness. 

My colleagues and I tested this idea in four experimental studies. We showed people news articles about an injustice perpetrated against their group.  However, some participants were shown additional information about the grassroots response by citizens in the offending country in order to see how the citizens’ response shaped participants’ feelings of forgiveness. We also showed some participants additional information about the national apology issued by the offending country’s leader to judge the effectiveness of the leader’s apology in eliciting forgiveness. 

In the first study, 434 Indian participants read about the racially-motivated murder of an Indian student by a group of white Australians. Some participants also read about “sorry demonstrations” by the Australian public – public demonstrations that conveyed ordinary citizens’ regrets – and some read about Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s apology for the incident.

In a second study, 204 Australian participants read about a museum commemorating the slaughter of Australian soldiers by German troops during the Battle of Fromelles in World War I. Some participants also read that the museum featured more than 100 letters from German citizens expressing remorse, and some read about a letter from German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A third study had 600 American participants read an article about a visiting Chinese delegation that played an anti-American anthem at a White House dinner. Some participants also read that the subsequent “social media buzz” in China expressed remorse, and some read about the Chinese delegation’s apology.

In a final study, 278 Irish Catholic participants were reminded of the Bloody Sunday massacre when British troops killed unarmed protesters. Some participants were told that public polls indicated widespread remorse among British citizens, and some participants read Prime Minister David Cameron’s apology speech.  

In all four studies, reading about the grassroots response from ordinary citizens resulted in a greater belief that the offender group felt remorseful. This also translated into greater levels of forgiveness for the action.  In contrast, reading about the leader’s apology did not change participants’ beliefs about the offender group’s remorse or their feelings of forgiveness. 

These studies show that grassroots responses to past injustice may have a surprisingly strong impact on victim forgiveness.  They illustrate our collective power in promoting harmony between victim and offender groups.  If we are able to demonstrate our views broadly in a coordinated expression of remorse, we can have an extraordinary impact on future peace and reconciliation.

For Further Reading:

Okimoto, T. G., Hornsey, M. J., & Wenzel, M. (2019). The power of grassroots expressions of remorse for promoting intergroup forgiveness. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 80, 39-51.

About the Author

Tyler Okimoto is an Associate Professor of Management at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. His research investigates post-conflict reconciliation between individuals and between social groups.

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Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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