Social Graces: All Apologies

I'm sorry, but... most people will accept an apology, be it forced or sincere.

By Gregory Sulkowski, published on July 1, 2007 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Insincere apologies are just like compliments—we eat them right up. That's the gist of a study out of Cornell. Psychologists Jane Risen and Thomas Gilovich exposed unsuspecting subjects to a staged wrongdoing. The perpetrators then apologized either on their own or after being told to do so. The result: Although onlookers were less convinced by forced apologies than by unprompted ones, the targets themselves believed both equally. That's because third parties are motivated to be empathetic to the victim, whereas victims want to feel forgiving. They may also feel constrained by the expected response: "That's OK."

"Before grad school, I taught fifth-graders and was amazed at how much time I spent coercing apologies," Risen recalls. She wondered why victims seemed so happy after even the stiffest apologies, often skipping off with the sorry-sayer. "Our results show this isn't just an act—when receiving an apology, we tend to believe it!

Have you ever refused to accept an apology?

"The apologies I don't accept are the ones that start, 'I'm sorry, but…' "—Star S.

"I've never refused an apology, but sometimes question its sincerity, like when my sons apologize so that some privilege isn't taken away."—Donna M.

"It's rare for people to apologize and not mean it. Most people who don't want to do it don't bother, because it requires swallowing your pride. The only exception I can think of is between a husband and wife."—Sammy S.

"I have definitely told my husband that I didn't believe that he was really sorry, especially when the apology was accompanied by an eye roll."—Jen F.