Behavior / Evidence / Psychosocial

I’m Sorry, But Apologies May Be Overrated

“It’s easier to seek forgiveness than ask for permission.”

As a society, we value the apology. Mark Sanford, Lance Armstrong. Hugh Grant, Mel Gibson. David Letterman, Tiger Woods. We teach our children the importance of being able to say “I’m sorry” from the moment they first learn to talk, believing that they will be better citizens for learning those critical words.  Taking ownership of one’s actions involves being able to apologize to those adversely affected by such actions, and we are more likely to extend foregiveness and reconciliation as well as lessen punishment and blame to people who apologize.

Image taken from thabto.wordpress.comAnd yet, a recent NPR clip on Morning Edition suggests that there may be value in NOT apologizing. A suprising research study shows that people who refuse to apologize for their actions report feeling more powerful and experiencing greater value integrity and more positive self-esteem.   Moreover, research also indicates that people tend to imagine  that receiving an apology will be very valuable, whereas actually receiving the apology has far less of an impact on their trust and well-being. Put simply, we tend to overvalue the impact of receiving an apology. Thus, on both ends– the harm-doer and the harmed — apologies and the lack thereof are not as straightforward as perceived.

Perhaps, then, it is time to reconsider the importance and effectiveness of an apology.  In an era where even the most egregious behavior can be pardoned with a televised apology, the value of the words “I’m sorry” are often questionable.  Regardless, it seems logical that we should apologize to those we truly hurt, harm or deceive.  However, it is likely that there are also times when apologizing goes against the convictions of one who believes himself to be right. And, in this case, then, there may be value in refraining from apologizing simply to mitigate judgement, alleviate a difficult situation or falsely mollify another party.  Strength of character may be defined as much by what we don’t apologize for as what we do. After all, as Winston Churchill said, “Kites rise highest against the wind—not with it.”


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