Accepting apologies for accidents is easier if you have a bigger aSTS in your brain
Neuroscientists are finding that erring is still very human, but forgiveness might not be quite as divine as the proverb states. A lot of forgiveness, at least in cases of accidental harm due to oversight or carelessness, seems to depend on a brain structure called the left anterior superior temporal sulcus (aSTS), a portion of your cerebral cortex. While culturally the ability to forgive others is said to be a sign of one’s maturity and grace, brain scans indicate that it (also?) depends on the size of your aSTS, and how well you understand the nature whatever harm was done to you.
To test these ideas, volunteers were asked to evaluate 36 hypothetical scenarios that fell into one of four basic categories. Those categories were stories that led to harm for the listener, either due to intent or accident, or outcomes that were neutral for the listener, either by intent or accident. In each case, the volunteer was then asked to judge how severe they found the outcome of each story, if the intent of the fictitious wrong-doer mattered, and how morally acceptable their actions were. As you might expect, intentional harm was widely condemned, which fits with previous research and every piece of human culture that makes a point to demonstrate the antagonistic motivations of villains in folklore and fiction.
Accidental harm was a more complicated case to judge. In these questions, and in previous research, people tended to be willing to forgive serious harm as long as they believed it was accidental. This is true of cultures around the world, and is even visible in legal systems that punish premeditated killing more severely than accidents and negligence. However, forgiving accidents isn’t a black and white issue, and this is where the size of a person’s aSTS comes in.
Like many brain structures, the aSTS has been linked to a variety of processes in our thinking. The thin string of brain tissue has been linked with recognizing words, both written and spoken, identifying known faces, and even following the gaze of another person to guess what they’re looking at. In the case of this study, the size of one’s aSTS correlated with how likely they were to be sympathetic to the accidental nature of harm done in a story. The hypothesis is then that a more developed aSTS allows the listener to better imagine and understand the mental state of the person causing harm, which then makes it easier to understand when problems arise from unintended mistakes.
Superior way to say you’re sorry
So if forgiveness for an accident is at least partially reliant on the size and shape of a listener’s brain, what can you do if you’re the one who made a damaging mistake? You can hope that you’re dealing with someone with an oversized aSTS, but carefully crafting your apology may also help communicate that you’ve made a mistake and make it easier for your listener to forgive you. Separate studies have looked into what makes an apology more effective with listeners, and found that six elements are key towards repairing a relationship. In descending order of importance, those elements are expressing regret, explaining what happened, taking responsibility for your role in the problem, repenting your actions, offering to fix things and then outright asking for forgiveness. Many of these elements likely help demonstrate the accidental nature of the problem, allowing a listener’s aSTS to see how you certainly didn’t intend to cause any harm in the process.