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Front Psychol. 2015 Oct 27;6:1611. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01611. eCollection 2015.

The strength of a remorseful heart: psychological and neural basis of how apology emolliates reactive aggression and promotes forgiveness.

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Center for Brain and Cognitive Sciences, Peking University , Beijing, China ; Department of Psychology, Peking University , Beijing, China.
Center for Brain and Cognitive Sciences, Peking University , Beijing, China ; Department of Psychology, Peking University , Beijing, China ; Key Laboratory of Machine Perception (Ministry of Education), Peking University , Beijing, China ; Beijing Key Laboratory of Behavior and Mental Health, Peking University , Beijing, China ; PKU-IDG/McGovern Institute for Brain Research, Peking University , Beijing, China.


Apology from the offender facilitates forgiveness and thus has the power to restore a broken relationship. Here we showed that apology from the offender not only reduces the victim's propensity to react aggressively but also alters the victim's implicit attitude and neural responses toward the offender. We adopted an interpersonal competitive game which consisted of two phases. In the first, "passive" phase, participants were punished by high or low pain stimulation chosen by the opponents when losing a trial. During the break, participants received a note from each of the opponents, one apologizing and the other not. The second, "active" phase, involved a change of roles where participants could punish the two opponents after winning. Experiment 1 included an Implicit Association Test (IAT) in between the reception of notes and the second phase. Experiment 2 recorded participants' brain potentials in the second phase. We found that participants reacted less aggressively toward the apologizing opponent than the non-apologizing opponent in the active phase. Moreover, female, but not male, participants responded faster in the IAT when positive and negative words were associated with the apologizing and the non-apologizing opponents, respectively, suggesting that female participants had enhanced implicit attitude toward the apologizing opponent. Furthermore, the late positive potential (LPP), a component in brain potentials associated with affective/motivational reactions, was larger when viewing the portrait of the apologizing than the non-apologizing opponent when participants subsequently selected low punishment. Additionally, the LPP elicited by the apologizing opponents' portrait was larger in the female than in the male participants. These findings confirm the apology's role in reducing reactive aggression and further reveal that this forgiveness process engages, at least in female, an enhancement of the victim's implicit attitude and a prosocial motivational change toward the offender.


ERP; Implicit Association Test; LPP; apology; forgiveness; reactive aggression

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