I’m sorry, I’ve changed, I promise

Many people who have never even stepped foot into a 12-step recovery room have nevertheless heard of the 9th step. That’s the part where recovering alcoholics and addicts make amends to people they have harmed over the years, and it’s the most public part of an otherwise very private process. There is even a Seinfeld episode that pokes good-hearted fun at the 9th step.

This step also resonates widely because, to one degree or another, we all have to do 9th step work at some point—even if we don’t call it that. In psychological terms, the 9th step is about trust recovery—apologizing, promising change, insisting we’ve changed—really. Addicts are taught that righting wronged relationships—at least trying to reestablish trust—is a cornerstone of sobriety.

But it’s not always easy. And indeed recovering addicts are warned that some wronged people may never accept the proffered amends. That’s true of trust violations in general: It appears that some people are quick to forgive, where others see only burnt bridges. Why is that? Is there a fundamental psychological difference between those who accept reparations readily and those who do not? And can the unforgiving be brought around?

A new study offers some insight into the psychology of trust—both violation and repair. University of Pennsylvania psychological scientist Maurice Schweitzer, an expert on organizations and decision making, decided to explore the idea of trust recovery in the lab. He and his colleagues—Michael Haselhuhn and Alison Wood—wanted to see if basic beliefs about moral “character” influence trust violations and forgiveness. They also wanted to see if they could modify those beliefs—and in doing so make people more or less forgiving.

The scientists recruited a large group of volunteers to play an elaborate game involving breaches of trust and reparations. But before the game started, they primed the volunteers with different beliefs about moral character. Some were nudged to believe that people can change—that people can and do become more ethical and trustworthy if they sincerely set their minds to it. The others were primed with the opposite belief—basically that scoundrels will always be scoundrels. This core belief is surprisingly easy to manipulate, and the researchers did it here simply by having the volunteers read essays arguing for one belief or the other.

The trust game that followed goes like this: You have $6, which you can either keep or give to another person. If you give it away, it triples in value to $18, which the recipient can either keep or split with you, $9 apiece. So initially giving away the $6 is obviously an act of trust. But in order to study trust recovery, the scientists put the volunteers through several rounds of the game. In the early rounds, the recipient (actually a computer) violated trust by keeping the $6 a couple times in a row. Then the recipient apologized and promised to be more trustworthy from now on. Then there was one final opportunity to be either trusting or not.

So does believing in the possibility of change shape people’s ability to forgive—and trust again? It does, dramatically. As the scientists report on-line in the journal Psychological Science, they easily eroded trust and they also easily restored it—but only in those who believed in moral improvement. Those who believed in a fixed moral character, incapable of change, were much less likely to regain their trust after they were betrayed.

These results have practical implications for anyone trying to make amends and reestablish trust—in recovery, in business, in love. Apologies and promises may not be enough in some cases, and indeed it may be more effective to send a convincing message about the human potential for real moral transformation. The best way to send that message, of course, may be to act like a changed person. In the rooms of recovery, that’s called a “living amends.”

APS regularly opens certain online articles for discussion on our website. Effective February 2021, you must be a logged-in APS member to post comments. By posting a comment, you agree to our Community Guidelines and the display of your profile information, including your name and affiliation. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations present in article comments are those of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the views of APS or the article’s author. For more information, please see our Community Guidelines.

Please login with your APS account to comment.