Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

The Hardest Word

By Tim Hannan

Linguistic analysis can distinguish between genuine and falsified expressions of remorse.

Expressions of remorse following wrongdoing play an important role in interpersonal relationships, especially those of a close or intimate nature. Remorse is also influential in criminal cases, where the offender’s statement may be interpreted as a measure of repentance (and thereby influence the severity of a sentence), decisions concerning parole, or the assessment of risk of subsequent violence.

Given the potential benefits to the offender of faking remorse, it’s surprising that few studies have examined how one might reliably evaluate whether an expression of remorse is sincere. A recent study by researchers at Charles Sturt University has demonstrated that it may be possible to identify genuine apologies through linguistic analysis, providing a potentially useful, objective means of distinguishing between genuine and falsified expressions of remorse.

Prior investigations have reported that genuine expressions of remorse usually comprise five elements: a display of sadness, an apology, the acknowledgement that an important principle or rule has been broken, an indication that attempts will be made to avoid any repetition of the action, and an offer to make amends. For a genuine apology to be made, it is also necessary for the individual to appreciate the wrongness of his or her action, and the harm caused to the other.

While emotions such as happiness and fear are readily associated with characteristic physical displays, remorse cannot be so easily observed, and the genuineness of remorse is usually measured by the language and tone of the apology. However, studies have shown that most people are not very skilled at detecting lies, with reported success rates little better than chance, even for those with forensic training. It may well be the case that the ability of judges, juries and other judicial officers to assess the genuineness of remorse is similarly poor.

Previous work on lying had suggested that the act is often accompanied by increased physiological arousal and emotion, and increased cognitive demands (keeping the story straight), along with the effortful attempt to suppress any behaviours that might reveal the speaker to be lying. Yet these markers of lying may not be as useful in detecting the fabrication of an expression of remorse, given that a genuine expression would be presumed likely to elicit increased arousal and emotion, and perhaps an increased effort to manage this in order to communicate one’s regret effectively.

Psychologists at Charles Sturt University explored whether analysis of the elements of the language employed might distinguish genuine from false statements of remorse. Benjamin Moberly and Gina Villar noted that some prior studies had found that, when telling a lie, people often make fewer references to themselves, as exemplified by a reduction in the use of first person singular pronouns (I, me and my). One theory suggests that these self-referential elements are reduced as an attempt, whether deliberate or unconscious, to distance the speaker from the untruthful content of the utterance.

Moberly and Villar examined the statements of remorse produced by 55 volunteer participants who were invited to compose a statement either for a situation in which they were genuinely remorseful, or one in which they would wish to falsely convey an impression of remorse. The findings were striking: participants fabricating an expression of remorse produced a significantly lower proportion of first person singular pronouns in their statements than those who reported experiencing genuine remorse. The results did not vary with the age or gender of the respondents.

While acknowledging the limitations in generalising from the data obtained from participants reporting non-criminal situations, the findings suggest that linguistic analysis may serve as a useful marker of untruthfulness in the expression of remorse. In addition to the possibility of preventing remorseless offenders from manipulating the justice system for their benefit, linguistic analysis may also be a potentially useful method of assessing credibility in other circumstances, such as police interrogations, border security or political speeches.

A/Prof Tim Hannan is Head of the School of Psychology at Charles Sturt University, and the Past President of the Australian Psychological Society.