Monday, June 4, 2012

What is an apology worth to you?

Family dynamics are amazing.  It is fascinating to think about which relatives are no longer talking to others and to get the story behind the feuds.  These squabbles are the kind of thing that makes it so hard to create a seating chart at big family events. 
One common theme that emerges from many family stories centers on violations of trust and the apologies (or lack of apologies) that come from them.  On the one hand, I can remember sitting with relatives who were still angry after many years because of some insult or slight, but the real crime that kept the grudge active was that no apology was offered.  On the other hand, I also remember cases where there was a similar insult or slight and the apology offered wasn’t judged sufficient.
So, is there any value to apologies at all?
This question was addressed in a paper in the January, 2011 issue of Psychological Science by David DeCremer, Madan Pillutla, and Chris Reinders Folmer.  These authors looked at people’s beliefs about the influence of an apology and their actual reaction to apologies in a simple situation.
Participants came to the lab and played a trust game with another player (who was actually an experimenter).  In the trust game, participants are given money (say $10), and are told that if they give it to their partner, the experimenter will triple the money (turning it into $30).  The partner can then share as much of it back with the original partner as possible.  The outcome that most people think is fair is if they give the $10 to their partner, and then the partner returns half of the total back so that everyone ends up with $15.
In these studies, 90% of the participants elected to give the $10 to their partner.  The partner then returned only $5.  At that point, half the participants were asked to imagine how they would feel if the partner apologized for being unfair.  The other half received an apology from the partner and were asked how they would feel.  Those who imagined getting an apology said they would feel much better than those who actually received an apology.  A followup study showed that people who received an apology also trusted their partner less in the future than they thought they would when they imagined receiving an apology.
Why does this happen?
When someone violates your trust and then fails to apologize, you feel bad both about the violation and the lack of an apology.  When you focus on getting the apology, then you tend to overestimate the role it is playing in how badly you feel.  If you actually get the apology, you are still left with the violation of trust, and that feels bad even if someone did apologize for it. 
Ultimately, then, you have to realize that when someone violates your trust, the apology is not going to make that hurt go away.  You have two options there.  One is to nurse the grudge, or to actually communicate with the person who violated your trust.  Creating a trusting relationship with someone after a violation requires hard work, and only you can decide whether that work is worth doing.
In the end you need to recognize that getting an apology alone is not going to make things better by itself.  So, don’t let your relationship with someone else rest just on whether they apologized for something they did wrong.


  1. Apologies have become under rated in our society. When my daughter was in a group of similarly-disabled kids (emotional/behavioral) her teachers stated that they never prompted the kids to say "I'm sorry." at all. The theory was they were supposed to "make it better" instead.

    I didn't get it. And I didn't agree.

    A large part of apologizing is admitting the one has done something wrong. When there is no apology, it can be assumed that the offender believes they've done no wrong.

  2. My family, along with my ex, ganged up and pulled some really nasty stunts on me around 12 years ago. Even now it sometimes shocks me to the core when I remember it. My life divides into "before these events" and "after these events".

    A couple of years on and my ex husband did have the grace to tell me how much he regretted the things they did to me. We never moved beyond an uneasy truce, but were civil. I don't have anything to do with him now because he did the same thing again a few years on. But him acknowledging how vicious and cruel they had been and expressing regret helped me move on a lot.

    All I've had since from my mother, believe this or not, was a tiny note found years later on the rarely visited "Friends Reunited" in which she said "Hope you're doing OK, get in touch if you like, if not cheers". Fucking hell, that was the best a mother could manage. Years on the family try all sorts of sad sneaky little maneouvres to get a dialogue going. Except one. Acknowledging the enormity of their actions. And if they are still in denial and think they've done nothing wrong then it is awfully hard to forgive. And way, way too late. I will never be the person I was before. I feel nothing but contempt for them if I ever think of them at all. At least the ex faced his actions and clearly felt ashamed of himself.

    TLDR: An apology helps, but it's no cure-all. Sometimes you just need your feelings to be acknowledged. I've never really trusted anyone since.