Category Archives: Social Behaviour

The Science Of I’m Sorry

The Science Of I'm Sorry
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How an apology helps to restore relations.

Many of us have been raised to think that anger is a bad thing. Something that should be avoided at all costs. In this post we discuss how it may be a good friend, to be nurtured and cultivated and when and how it may be avoided when things go south.

First a few words about emotions in general. There was a time when emotions were considered a distraction, things that prevent us from being rational, thinking objectively, making good decisions and executing them. Thanks to the many studies in recent years that all has changed. We now have a fair idea of the role of emotions in decision making, planning, even sticking to those plans and decisions and updating them where necessary.

At the core, all emotions (fear, happiness, disgust, anxiety, surprise et. al) play an important role to help us to survive and thrive. And this implies taking decisions in our self interest. Personal to us as an individual or to a community depending upon how we identify ourselves belonging to a particular group in a given context (Self Identity).

Now coming back to the topic, Anger is one of the most studied emotions by behavioral and neuroscientists. It’s easy to synthesize and measure anger in a lab. There are a few things research tells us about anger.

1. The word Anger covers a vast spectrum of emotions of varying intensities ranging from mild irritation to annoyance, aggression all the way up to hostility and then fury and rage. Unlike some other emotions like disgust, Anger is not a learnt emotion. Not something we learn as we grow, but we are very much born with it. Even a 5 days old baby who is playfully waving its hands and legs, if you try to hold its feet and pin it down even for a few seconds would show all the classic symptoms of anger. It’s face becomes red, heart beat goes up and the other physiological and neurochemical changes that may be measured in a lab.

Milder forms of anger such as aggression are very much useful and provide the much needed strength and motivation to overcome obstacles. Anger is an emotion that starts to impair our sense of risk and pain by releasing natural painkillers and other suppressants into the system. That is why a hurt player or a wounded soldier would sometime get aggressive, perhaps even be considered a daredevil (in hindsight) and do something quite dramatic in the face of all odds, fighting and winning against more powerful opponents.

But when the intensity of anger crosses into the domain of hostility, fury or rage, there is a complete breakdown of our sense of risk, pain, physical and mental awareness. And that is, when bad things start to happen.

2. The underpinnings of anger lies in our sense of fairness. An obligation or desire to set right what has been wronged. Anger cannot arise or sustain without the presence of a retribution component to punish the perpetrator for the undesirable act, which we think was unfair or did not fit our moral code (however convoluted or illogical that might appear to someone else). The tendency is to punish the agent sometime physically; sometimes just cognitively by inducing the emotions of sadness, shame, guilt, even fear. The objective: to prevent a repeat of any future such transgression.

3. Anger is always directed towards an intelligent agent. Someone who we think is capable of thinking and taking independent decisions; individuals, groups of people, governments and like. We may love food or watching movies or fear electric shocks or be disgusted of inanimate things but we cannot be angry towards just things, events or experiences.

Imagine you are in a hurry rushing through a store and suddenly an elbow thrusts you in the abdomen, As you recover, one can sense some anger rising towards this person. Then suddenly you realize, Oh! it’s not a person but just a mannequin to display clothes. We don’t start to exhibit our anger towards the mannequin. Immediately the focus of our anger shifts to the irresponsible worker who pushed the mannequin out there. Now sometimes it may appear as if inanimate objects etc. were being harmed or abused, but the real anger is directed towards the perpetrator with some intelligence (who we think caused the act).

Now this is also interesting and a topic of debate among behavioral scientists. Where and how would anger be directed towards in the case of a mishap in Artificially Intelligent systems: self driving cars, robots etc. Who would be blamed? The inanimate (but now intelligent) car, the creator (programmer/engineer), the owner or the Government which allowed them.

4. The dissipation of anger follows an inverse exponential decay path. The intensity of anger reduces slowly at first and then
much sharply as in the graph  below.

Inverse exponential decay of emotion
Courtesy International Handbook of Anger

Anger and other emotions are like a chemical storm in the brain. Imagine a bucket filled with water and some colored sand-like particles which is then stirred vigorously. Left to its own it would take some time for things to settle down before calm is restored.

Now the question that arises. How does an apology fit into this picture?
We all know that an apology on the part of the offender generally helps to dissipate anger. But how so?

Let’s think from the perpetrators point for a second. What does a sincere apology actually do? Isn’t it just another way of saying that normally I am a good and moral person, but this particular act that bothered you was not so. Therefore a sincere apology, in a way, helps to separate the agent from the act. Once the agent is cleared of the act, anger subsides much quickly.
Roger Petersen and Sarah Zukerman in The International Handbook of Anger describe the process as follows. When offenders apologize, anger, the desire for revenge, and levels of punishment are hypothesized to diminish. The causal processes are fourfold. First, by exhibiting the emotions of sorrow, sadness, regret, shame, or guilt, the offender demonstrates to the victim his/her humanity which enables the victim to overcome stereotypes brought on by anger. Second, the apology produces a separation between the offender and his negative action; the offense is shamed, but the perpetrator is not. In this way, the perpetrator’s inherent self-worth is redeemed and s/he becomes potentially worthy of restored relations and reconciliation with the victim.

The above graph for the decay of anger now becomes something like the one below. Doesn’t disappear altogether immediately. The chemical storm in the brain takes a while to settle down.

Courtesy International Handbook of Anger


To conclude; Anger is a spectrum of emotions, aimed at an intelligent agent, to preserve self identity in case of a transgress and very much essential for survival. The higher intensity emotion destroys our ability to reason. Unless provoked continuously it comes down on its own following an inverse exponential curve. A sincere apology and explanation separates the agent from the act and accelerates the process of restored relations.

Behavior change of counter-terrorism

In the latest article in “Behavior By Brain” series, I talk about the psychology of terrorism.

Traditional kinetic responses to terrorism having failed (terrorist organizations are only happy to have martyrs to fuel their recruitment efforts), there has been a re-think on countering terrorism.

Authorities have started to realize that we need to understand the radicalization process as a behavior change process. While efforts are underway to unravel the radicalization process, the tougher task is to counter the radicalization narratives.

Fascinating, though morbid,  are the behavioral shifts that radicalization engenders: coping with imminent death, battling present bias, and overcoming hesitation to kill.

Terrorists have been one step ahead of Governments so far. Authorities need to act decisively to expand their efforts to counter the behavior change process called radicalization.

How context cues behavior

We tend to believe that Indians behave ‘properly’ only in foreign countries – Singapore or USA; that Indians in India are boorish and have no civic sense.

Is that really so? Don’t we behave better in gleaming malls? Don’t we speak softly in libraries? Don’t Malayalees queue up in front of liquor stores?

I go into the behavioral science of civic sense in this article in Mint.

New article in ‘Behavior By Brain’ series the Mint

The latest article in my series ‘Behavior By Brain’ in the Mint talks about the implication of the adolescent brain and its peculiarities.

The adolescent age is typically considered the most challenging phase for parents. They are also a tumultuous time for the youth. New researches show how the brain development shapes their behavior – from skewed reward perception, to heightened need for social rewards. And importantly, these researches show that its not the case that adolescents have a faulty brain that does not recognize risks – their risk perceptions are on equal footing as adults’.

Read more about why we should re-look at the policies for adolescents here.

Are all crashes, ‘accidents?’

FinalMile works on a number of road safety projects where we are tasked with reducing incidents on highways. A key part of the work is discussions with the safety team and road users. When we ask them to narrate incidents they have seen or been in, many would say, “I was in an accident” or “I saw an accident.”  Oxford Dictionary defines accident as ‘an unfortunate incident that happens unexpectedly and unintentionally.’  Is it apt to call all the road incidents, ‘accidents?’

The word ‘accident’ is misleading because accident is something that just happens and is unintentional, whereas most crashes happen because of a bad decision made by a driver on the road. Even the crashes that happen due to over-speeding, distracted driving, or driving under influence (DUI) are referred to as accidents. When a driver responsible for a crash says “it was an accident,” what is implied is this: “I did not intend to do it” or “it was unavoidable” even though it was an active decision/choice made by the driver to over-speed, drive when drunk or text while driving. It is the same when a pedestrian jaywalks or crosses without looking. Calling them ‘accidents’ removes the active role the driver or the pedestrian played.

Head-on collision involving two trucks, killing both the drivers on spot; one of the drivers was drunk – a picture taken during one of our road safety projects.

According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) report, during the year 2014 in India, 4,50,898 road collisions resulted in 1,41,526 deaths. As per the report, 47.9% of these fatalities were due to over-speeding, 41.5% were due to dangerous/careless driving and overtaking, 5.3% due to poor weather conditions, 2.8% due to mechanical defect and 2.6% due to DUI. If we exclude the fatalities that happened due to poor weather conditions and mechanical failure, 92% of the fatalities were due to driver’s error.

Source: NCRB report 2014
Source: NCRB report 2014

Also, based on a data studied by National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) of US, 94% of the collisions are due to driver’s error. Around 20 years ago, the US Department of Transportation initiated a campaign to eliminate the use of word ‘accident,’ and police departments of New York City and San Francisco have replaced the word ‘collision’ for ‘accident’ while filling out collision reports.  According to US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, ‘changing the way we think about events, and the words we use to describe them, affects the way we behave. Motor vehicle crashes and injuries are predictable, preventable events. Continued use of the word “accident” promotes the concept that these events are outside of human influence or control. In fact, they are predictable results of specific actions.’

It is not just about control during the event. Language affects the chain of reasoning far beyond the event. People have a more general tendency to attribute their own behavior to situational factors and other’s behavior to dispositional factors – a social bias known as the “fundamental attribution error.”  Attribution theory helps us to understand why, in case of a crash, the driver attributes his fault to situational factors such as poor visibility or another vehicle, while ascribing behavior of the other driver to dispositional factors such as reckless/wrong side driving or over-speeding. The word ‘accident’ aids in ascribing the reason of the crash to external factors and makes it easy to rationalize. When the crash is clearly attributable to driver’s error, by calling it an accident, the driver is being excused for his negligence and unsafe behavior.  By referring to the crashes as accidents where the driver was not following the posted speed limits, manoeuvring dangerously on the road, or getting behind the wheel drunk, we are not holding the person responsible for the act. It is not that someone has to be blamed or held responsible for every crash, it is to make drivers more responsible and realize that crashes do not happen randomly.

The word ‘accident’ is very colloquial and it is a difficult task for sure to bring about the change in our system, but replacing it with ‘crash’ or ‘collision’ would be the first step to change our perception towards road safety.