You’ve sworn that you ran the dishwasher, even as your partner points to the racks of dirty plates that sat in an unwashed mess overnight. This wrongdoing, while relatively slight, still feels difficult to acknowledge. After all, you like to think of yourself as someone who follows through on your obligations. But let's say that you’ve accused your partner of sending texts to a mutual friend, making you wonder whether there’s something going on between them. It turns out that their texts were innocent exchanges in which they discussed what food to bring to a holiday potluck party. So there was nothing untoward going on, but you are still reluctant to admit your suspicions were unfounded. There’s been a good deal of talk in the press recently about whether President Trump should admit he was wrong in some of his tweets, such as those about having been "wiretapped" by the previous administration, and even the involvement of British spy agencies in the alleged affair. According to a New York Times op-ed by Paul Krugman, we as a nation are suffering from an “epidemic of infallibility”: No one, president or not, wants to admit to wrongdoing, at least not publicly.
Alexander Pope (1688-1744) famously wrote, “to err is human, to forgive divine,” but consider this updated revision: “to err is human, to admit divine.” Part of forgiving, of course, is forgiving yourself, but making this known to others in the form of an admission can seem like an impossible demand.
There is not much in the psychological literature on admitting to wrongdoing. However, from two recent studies on apologies reported by Ohio State University’s Roy Lewicki and colleagues (2016), we can extrapolate to the scenario in which you have to make public the admission that you goofed. Lewicki and his collaborators note that “almost every day, the media covers a high-profile apology” (p. 177). Their research, on the factors that constitute “good” apologies, draws from two sets of literatures. One is communication research on apologies as a form of “image repair." The second is based on social psychology and the concept of apologies as a way to repair broken trust between the sinner and the wronged. It’s perhaps the “image repair” function of apologies that is most relevant to admissions of wrongdoing. Apologies and admission of wrongdoing both involve accepting the mindset that you’ve erred in some way — i.e., that you’re fallible.
Epidemic of infallibility or not, it’s more common for people to want to see themselves in a positive light, rather than accept their weaknesses. Yet, for an apology to be taken seriously, as the Lewicki team points out, it is most important that it include an acknowledgment of responsibility — “the apologizer’s awareness of this social norm of recognizing harm and caring to rectify it” (p. 181).
In their first study, acknowledgment of responsibility was exemplified by the statement “I was wrong in what I did, and I accepted responsibility for my actions” (p. 183). An online sample of 333 adults (59 percent male, with a mean age of 34) read a scenario involving one person violating the trust of another, either in terms of competence or integrity. They were told to imagine they were reviewing an accounting job applicant who had gotten in trouble in a prior job for either having mistakenly filed a client’s return (a competence trust violation) or having knowingly filed a tax return that had errors (an integrity trust violation). Participants then rated the effectiveness of apologies varying in several components, of which one was acceptance of responsibility.
As it turned out, the participants in the study rated the acceptance of responsibility component as the most effective form of apology, followed closely by an offer to repair the damage and then third by an explanation of the mistake. A second study involving a somewhat different procedure further supported the value of accepting responsibility as the basis for an apology.
Apologies, unlike admissions of wrongdoing, invariably involve the fact that there's an identifiable victim. It’s important to the victim, Lewicki and his collaborators point out, for transgressors to take ownership of the harmful action, even though it might make them seem incompetent or dishonest. This is yet another key reason to admit to wrongdoing — it shows that you respect the people who were affected by your actions. It can be the ultimate expression of egocentrism, or even narcissism, to focus only on your own self-image and how it is harmed by violation of competence or integrity expectations held by others toward you. Instead, by admitting the wrongdoing, you show that you value them as much — or more than — you value your own need to seem infallible.
The Ohio State researchers point out that they didn’t compare denial with forms of apologies and that, as a result, they didn’t completely test the two-factor model of apologies. They also noted that they didn’t examine the interaction of person by situation in their scenarios — in other words, some individuals may be more offended by violations of trust integrity and others by competence. If you’re particularly sensitive about people being dishonest, you may have very different views of what constitutes a proper admission of wrongdoing than if you placed a higher value on competence. Thus, the person who admits to being “stupid” won’t bother you as much as the person who admits to being “clever” at having avoided being caught.
It is inevitable that you will make wrong decisions in your life, including ones that harm others as well as yourself. They may be minor ones, such as that dishwasher incident, or ones that have a more significant impact on the people you care about the most. Ironically, it’s when you acknowledge your weakness by admitting to wrongdoing that you show your strongest side.
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2017
Lewicki, R. J., Polin, B., & Lount, R. J. (2016). An exploration of the structure of effective apologies. Negotiation and Conflict Management Research, 9(2), 177-196. doi:10.1111/ncmr.12073