Why Not Apologizing Makes You Feel Better

Apr 1, 2013
Originally published on April 5, 2013 8:50 am

To err is human.

So is refusing to apologize for those errors.

From toddlers and talk show hosts to preteens and presidents, we all know people who have done stupid, silly and evil things, then squared their jaws and told the world they've done nothing wrong.

Parents, educators and even public relations flacks have talked at length about the value of coming clean, and there is abundant research on the psychological value of apologizing. But psychologists recently decided to take a new tack: If so many people don't like to do it, there must be psychological value in not apologizing, too.

In a recent paper, researchers Tyler G. Okimoto, Michael Wenzel and Kyli Hedrick reported on what they've found happens in people's minds when they refuse to apologize. They find that parents who tell their kids that saying sorry will make them feel better have been telling kids the truth — but not the whole truth.

"We do find that apologies do make apologizers feel better, but the interesting thing is that refusals to apologize also make people feel better and, in fact, in some cases it makes them feel better than an apology would have," Okimoto said in an interview.

Okimoto surveyed 228 Americans and asked them to remember a time they had done something wrong. Most people remembered relatively trivial offenses, but some remembered serious offenses, including crimes such as theft.

The researchers then asked the people whether they had apologized, or made a decision not to apologize even though they knew they were in the wrong. And they also divided the people at random and asked some to compose an email where they apologized for their actions, or compose an email refusing to apologize.

In both cases, Okimoto said, refusing to apologize provided psychological benefits — which explains why people are so often reluctant to apologize.

The same thing happened when people were asked to imagine doing something wrong, and then imagine apologizing or refusing to apologize.

"When you refuse to apologize, it actually makes you feel more empowered," he said. "That power and control seems to translate into greater feelings of self-worth."

Ironically, Okimoto said, people who refused to apologize ended up with boosted feelings of integrity.

The researchers are not suggesting that refusing to apologize is a useful life strategy: Okimoto himself said he has little trouble apologizing. The interpersonal benefits of apologizing are huge, and an apology can renew bonds not only between people but also between countries.

Okimoto believes the research, in fact, may provide a clue on how best to get people to apologize. Our conventional approach, especially with kids, is to force people to apologize. But if people are reluctant to apologize because apologies make them feel threatened, coercion is unlikely to help — that is, if a sincere apology is hoped for.

Support and love, by contrast, may be a more effective way to counter the feelings of threat involved in an apology.

The next time junior — or your partner — does something wrong, pass on the stare and try a hug.

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OK. If you've ever looked after a group of children, chances are you've tried to break up a squabble using the following words: Come on now, just say you're sorry. If your advice was met with stony-faced resistance, you will want to listen to this. NPR's Shankar Vedantam joins us regularly to discuss social science research, including some research on the psychological power of not apologizing. Shankar, welcome back to the program.


INSKEEP: Not sorry to have you here. So what do you mean, not apologizing? What is this about?

VEDANTAM: Well, you know, Steve, I almost feel we should warn parents to turn off the radio in case their kids are listening to the next segment, and here's why.

INSKEEP: OK. Four minutes, four minutes. OK, go ahead, for those still listening.

VEDANTAM: Apologies present us with a puzzle and the puzzle is kids find it hard to do, adults find it hard to do. It's even hard when it's completely rational. So, in the criminal justice system, for example, you have situations where someone is being found guilty and they're awaiting sentencing and the only thing that could reduce the severity of their sentence is if they say I'm sorry.

And time and time again, people refuse to apologize. So Tyler Okimoto, who's a researcher at the University of Queensland in Australia, along with his colleagues Michael Wenzel and Kyli Hedrick, they decided to conduct some psychological experiments to understand why people refuse to apologize. Now, parents have been telling their kids for years, look, just say you're sorry. You're going to feel better about yourself.

Okimoto finds that parents have been telling their kids the truth, but they haven't been telling their kids the whole truth. Here he is:

TYLER OKIMOTO: We do find that apologies do make apologizers feel better, but the interesting thing is that refusals to apologize also makes people feel better and, in fact, in some cases, it makes them feel even better than an apology would have.

VEDANTAM: So what he does is he asks a number of people to remember times when they've harmed someone and most people, of course, remember trivial things; domestic quarrels and stuff like that. But some people also remember serious harms they've done. They remember crimes such as theft. And Okimoto does two things. He asked them, did you actually apologize in real life? And then, second, he conducts a laboratory experiment where he asked them to compose an email where they either apologize or they refuse to apologize.

And what he finds is that both in real life as well as in the laboratory, refusing to apologize increases your feelings of status and increases your feelings of integrity.

INSKEEP: You feel like you have more integrity because you refuse to apologize for something that you know you should apologize for?

VEDANTAM: That's exactly right. The human mind is a wonderful thing, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK. So what is the conclusion here? We should never apologize for anything.

VEDANTAM: Well, actually, there are huge interpersonal costs in not apologizing and not just between individuals, between groups. I mean, think about conflicts that have been stuck for decades because one side can't tell another side, look, we're really sorry about what we did. The value of Okimoto's research is it starts to get a handle on why people find it so hard to apologize. Here he is again:

OKIMOTO: When you refuse to apologize, it actually makes you feel more empowered. That power and control seems to translate into greater feelings of self-worth.

INSKEEP: I think I'm getting this because when you apologize, you are putting your fate in someone else's hands. They will accept the apology or not, or respond however they do. When you say I will not apologize, you are still in control.

VEDANTAM: Yeah, and I think this research actually reminds me of the value of something that philosophers have been saying for a very long time, which is being able to apologize is not a sign of weakness. It's actually a sign of strength because if you look at the people who find it difficult to apologize, it's people who feel threatened, people who feel an apology would somehow make them extremely vulnerable.

INSKEEP: And, of course, if you're a little kid being asked to apologize, you feel vulnerable. You're little to begin with, and it almost suggests that maybe a parent would want to approach that situation a different way.

VEDANTAM: Yeah, and not just for kids, but for adults as well, because our first instinct when someone refuses to apologize to do the right thing, our first instinct is to coerce them into an apology, to make them do the right thing. The problem is that only threatens further that sense of not having any control. Okimoto's research, I think, actually mirrors something that we're seeing in a number of other areas of research, which is that one reason people find it difficult to give up biases is that giving up those biases is somehow threatening.

And our instinct to force them into doing the right thing, it's an instinct that can work very well in courtroom situations, but if you're actually trying to change people's behavior, love and support might be more effective.

INSKEEP: Because if not, people end up giving that apology that they don't really mean.

VEDANTAM: They're completely insincere.

INSKEEP: Sorr-eee. I'm sorry if you're offended. There are a variety of ways to do that. Well, Shankar, we're not too sorry that you came by.

VEDANTAM: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: Shankar Vedantam, regularly joins us to talk about social science research. You can follow him on Twitter @HiddenBrain, just as you can follow this program @MorningEdition and @NPRInskeep.


MICHAEL STIPE: (Singing) Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry.

INSKEEP: No, we're not. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.