Illustration by NPR
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. That power and control seems to translate into greater feelings of self-worth.
- Tyler G. Okimoto, researcher at the University of Queensland
"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.