Restaurant owner and television personality Paula Deen, who became famous for her homestyle Southern cooking and unabashed love of butter, was recently accused of using a racial slur. Deen admitted to the transgression and apologized for it, though some found her comments to be hollow and disingenuous. Following her admission, the Food Network terminated her contract, and a number of sponsors including Smithfield Foods, Home Depot, and Walmart broke ties with her. Some consider these penalties appropriate and deserved, while others view them as excessive or unwarranted. Regardless of whether the penalties were justified, one thing is clear: Her acknowledgement came at a price.
In fact, most apologies exact some toll on the offender, as it can be embarrassing to admit a mistake publicly or even to just one other person. And, as with Deen’s apology, the offender often suffers additional penalties as a result of the admission of guilt. Confession of a wrongdoing can damage a relationship, lead to loss of status or power, or even result in the termination of employment. These common costs may help explain the seemingly widespread reluctance to say, “I’m sorry.” From politicians and professional athletes to friends and co-workers, denial of culpability is far too familiar.
Beyond avoiding the embarrassment and potential penalty associated with admitting a wrongdoing, new research by Tyler Okimoto and colleagues in Australia suggests that there are deeper internal motives for our refusal to apologize. Okimoto’s research shows that those who refuse to express remorse maintain a greater sense of control and feel better about themselves than those who take no action after making a mistake.
Such findings may seem paradoxical, given the common wisdom that we should take responsibility for our actions and say we are sorry if we do harm. Indeed, research confirms the benefits of apologies for both victims and offenders. For victims, an apology serves as a form of moral restitution. When you apologize to a person you have offended, you convey a sense of power to that person. The victim can accept or reject the apology, and can extend or withhold forgiveness. As a result, the balance of power shifts from the offender to the offended. Victims may assume a position of superiority when they take the moral high ground and offer mercy to the guilty party, or they may gain a sense of power over the transgressor by denying pardon. Thus for victims, the culprit’s admission of guilt and contrition can be restorative.
There are upsides to apologies for the offenders too. By acknowledging personal mistakes and conveying remorse, offenders may diffuse anger and decrease the impending punishment or penalty, enhance their image in the eyes of the victim and other people, regain acceptance in a social group, or restore personal relationships. They may even reduce their own sense of guilt.
Given that apologies offer a relatively simple way to mend relations and heal wounds for victims and offenders, why do people refuse to apologize? Beyond escaping punishment, there may be some psychological benefits to standing one’s ground. For example, adopting a self-righteous stance may feed one’s need for power. If the act of apologizing restores power to the victim, it may also simultaneously diminish the power of the transgressor. Thus actively denying any wrongdoing may allow the offender to retain the upper hand . If one cannot deny an error entirely, minimizing the error may be the next best thing. Perhaps one reason that many felt Deen’s apology rang hollow was that she attempted to mitigate the severity of her infraction by stating that she only made the racial slur once, with a gun pointed at her head.
A second possible benefit of standing one’s ground in the face of an accusation is saving face. No one wants to admit to being a hypocrite. Inherent in an apology is the admission that one’s behavior failed to align with personal values and morals, as people generally don’t apologize for actions they believe are right and just. Thus when we admit that we are wrong, we expose the fact that we may talk the talk, but we do not walk the walk. By refusing to apologize, we deny any incongruity between belief and action, thus preserving a sense of authenticity and self-worth. Though Deen admitted she used a racial slur, she also challenged anyone who is sinless to “please pick up that stone and throw it so hard at my head that it kills me.” In doing so she tried to convey that she is no more of a hypocrite than anyone else.
Two recent studies by Okimoto and colleagues confirm that the costs and benefits of an apology may be more complex than once thought. In considering these studies, it is important to recognize that saying you are sorry and refusing to do so both involve intention, action, and purpose on the part of the wrongdoer. Thus, although apologizing and refusing to apologize may, on the surface, appear to be polar opposite responses, they may not have opposite consequences for the offender. The studies by Okimoto and colleagues demonstrate that resisting apology offers some surprising perks.
In both of these studies, participants remembered instances in which they offended someone or caused them to be upset. In the first study, participants recalled an offensive incident that had a specific outcome: (a) they apologized (apology condition), (b) they refused to apologize (refusal condition), or (c) they failed to take action (inaction condition). Participants also detailed the specific transgression and their perceived severity of the offense. Finally, participants reported how they felt about themselves after the event, rating their feelings of power and control, and their sense of self-esteem. They also reported the extent to which they were “true to themselves.”
Reported transgressions varied greatly, from minor accidents and verbal altercations to adultery and criminal behavior. The consequent feelings, however, depended not on the perceived severity of the infraction, but rather the action (or inaction) that followed. Relative to people who took no action after their transgression, both those who apologized and those who refused to apologize felt better about themselves and expressed a higher sense that they were true to themselves. There was an added benefit, though, for refusing to apologize, as participants in the refusal condition reported the highest levels of perceived power.
In the second study, participants were also asked to recall an incident in which they offended someone or caused them to be upset, but for this study, participants did not reflect on the outcome of the actual event. Instead, after recalling the infraction, participants either drafted an email to the victim apologizing for their actions (apology condition), drafted an email to the victim in which they refused to apologize for their actions (refusal condition), or took no action (control). Finally, participants reported how they felt about themselves as a result of the exercise. Relative to taking no action, drafting an apology and drafting a refusal to apologize both elicited greater feelings of control and power, and a sense of consistency in personal thought and action.
These findings suggest that apologizing and refusing to apologize may both support an individual’s basic need for independence and power. Both actions can make people feel better about themselves, and allow them to believe that their actions align with their personal values. That said, the studies by Okimoto and colleagues did not examine the victims’ responses to offenders’ actions, and victims will undoubtedly react differently to apologies than they will to refusals to apologize.
Furthermore, refusing to admit one’s mistakes and take responsibility may render a person less open to constructive feedback, thus limiting growth and innovation. Individuals who feel threatened or who must avoid failure to maintain status may be less inclined to admit error, and in turn may forego opportunities to learn and develop. Ultimately the need to feel powerful, if satisfied by a consistent refusal to admit mistakes, could make one weak. Indeed, it may be Deen’s perceived unwillingness to offer a future course of action that meaningfully addresses the persistent challenge of racism that led so many of her sponsors to sever ties.
“To err is human; to forgive divine.” This quote acknowledges the challenges and benefits of forgiveness. The work by Okimoto and colleagues suggests that as we consider the cycle of wrongdoings and reconciliation, we should also recognize the sacrifice and threat involved in the act of apology. Contrary to popular belief, apologies, it seems, are not cheap.