Are we really sorry when we write ‘sorry’?

Tuesday 17 May 2016

Dr Gina VillarResearchers at Charles Sturt University (CSU) have identified language that indicates whether or not someone is being genuine or false when they write 'sorry'.

Using linguistic analysis, CSU honours graduate Benjamin Moberly and his research supervisor Dr Gina Villar from CSU's School of Psychology found that genuine written statements included significantly greater use of first person singular pronouns – I, me and my – by the writer, compared to false statements.

"This result has significant importance in the criminal justice system," said Dr Villar, who is an adjunct lecturer with the University's School of Psychology in Bathurst.

"Offenders who make statements that show sorrow for an action but are actually remorseless can manipulate the justice system for their benefit, by receiving more lenient sentences or influencing parole decisions.

"Remorse also plays a part in rehabilitation programs for past offenders and violence risk assessments," Dr Villar said.

"To help identify remorseless offenders we wanted to find measurable differences in language that could be used by investigators to differentiate between genuine and false statements of remorse."

In their study of 55 English-speaking people, the researchers found that the greater use of first person singular pronouns in genuine written statements of remorse reflected previous research, which showed liars tended to use fewer self-references compared to truthful speakers.

Contrary to earlier studies, the result was not influenced by the age or gender of the respondents, indicating that the reduced use of first person singular pronouns could be a useful marker of fabricated statements by native English writers.

While research that identifies useful indicators of fabricated versus authentic statements of remorse is still in its infancy, language analysis has demonstrated great promise in the identification of deceptive versus truthful statements.

This research may have broader implication for investigating other groups that produce statements for credibility, including those who might pose a security threat to Australia's borders, or politicians.

Dr Villar, with a colleague at CSU in Port Macquarie, Dr Paola Castillo, is now examining the linguistic and behavioural changes during lying when individuals speak in their native language compared to their second language.


Media contact: Wes Ward, 0417 125 795

Media Note:

Dr Gina Villar is based at CSU in Bathurst. Contact CSU Media for interviews.

The research was published in 2015 by Mr Benjamin Moberley and Dr Gina Villar in "One more time without feeling: Detecting fabricated remorse using linguistic analysis", in the international Psychiatry, Psychology and Law journal. DOI 10.1080/13218719.2015.1032955