Do Apologies Help?

You messed up. So you apologize. But will it even matter?

Posted Dec 15, 2020

Engin Akyurt / Pixabay
Source: Engin Akyurt / Pixabay

Picture this: There is a slot open for the chair of the Committee on Organizational Restructuring. The members of this committee have been carefully selected by the leaders of your organization and it is considered quite a privilege to be on this team. 

Among the 12 people on the committee is your good friend Melissa. You were hired alongside Melissa 15 years ago and have generally had a nice friendship with her inside and outside of work. Also on the committee is Gretchen. Gretchen has, to put it simply, been a thorn in your side for years—especially as a co-member of this committee. She passive-aggressively seems to block every idea you ever advance in committee meetings, interrupting you constantly. Further, several folks have said that she regularly talks badly about you behind your back. She is mean and intimidating. As if that's not enough, as you see it, she consistently puts her own interests well ahead of the interests of the organization. 

An opening for the chair of this committee emerges and you immediately put your hat in the ring, largely so that you can actually have your ideas heard over the stifling actions of Gretchen. In a close secret-ballot election, you win 7-5. 

The afternoon after the election, you ask Melissa to go out for a drink to celebrate. At the pub, over her second gin and tonic, Melissa drops this on you: She tells you that she actually voted for Gretchen, apologizing profusely in the same breath. She explains that even though the vote was by secret ballot, she was afraid that Gretchen would find out if she had voted for you instead and that Gretchen would, in that case, launch retribution at her. 

You're simply stunned, sitting there with your mouth and your eyes wide open. Is this for real? your face and body are screaming. 

Sensing that you're upset, Melissa apologizes again, saying that she is truly sorry and saying that she'll make sure to "make it up to you" somehow.

Why the Apology Is Often Too Little and Too Late

From an evolutionary perspective, human social relationships are complex. Over thousands of generations, we evolved as a social ape with long-standing relationships in small groups (see Dunbar, 1992). Maintaining loyal, supportive relationships with others has, thus, always been a key to success in life among humans. Toward this end, we've evolved a host of social-emotional feelings and actions, such as the tendency to feel remorse after trespassing against another or the motivation to apologize to someone after messing up, in efforts to try to stay connected to important others in one's social circle (See Trivers, 1985). Staying connected with others has always been a foundational key to survival and, ultimately, reproductive success across the human experience (see Geher & Wedberg, 2020). 

In an experimental study examining how people respond to social transgressions, our team explored the effects of apologizing on whether one would be forgiven for slighting a friend. We also studied the effects of the size of the slight as well as whether the slight was personal in nature (see Geher et al., 2019). 

Our findings surprised us. While we found that the size of the slight and the degree to which it was personal mattered, the presence of an apology had nearly no effect whatsoever. 

While Melissa may have saved herself from the wrath of mean old Gretchen, she may well have lost a good friend in you along the way. 

Positive Evolutionary Psychology and Maintaining Meaningful and Supportive Relationships

The emerging field of positive evolutionary psychology is all about using concepts and findings from the field of evolutionary psychology to help guide people toward living their best lives. Much of this field focuses on the nature of human social interactions, which makes sense given how profoundly important sociality is in our lives. 

While a total lack of remorse has been shown to have adverse consequences, such as being assigned relatively longer jail sentences in criminal cases (see Lo, Au-Yeung, & Lin, 2015), normal levels of remorse along with concomitant apologetic behavior may actually not go very far in keeping people connected to important others in tight-knit groups.

I'd say that the lesson of these findings, in combination, is two-fold:

A. When it comes to close relationships in your world, it's in your interest to not trespass—treating your friends and loved ones like gold will have all kinds of long-term mutual benefits.

but

B. If you do mess up and end up slighting a friend, you should apologize and you should do it sincerely, so as to show genuine remorse. But don't be surprised if even your best-possible apology isn't enough. 

Bottom Line

Navigating the social world is about as difficult a task as there is in life. At their worst, relationships can be fraught with distress, betrayal, hurt, and treachery in general. A healthy and happy psychological life goes hand-in-hand with a warm and fulfilling social life that is full of trust, support, and love. 

Sure, we all make mistakes at times. And often, our actions warrant an apology. But given how powerfully negative human reactions can be to betrayal and to being slighted by close others, don't be surprised if an apology is not sufficient. More reason to always remember others' perspectives and feelings as we navigate the waters of life. 

Facebook image: fizkes/Shutterstock

References

Dunbar, R. I. M. (1992). Neocortex size as a constraint on group size in primates. Journal of Human Evolution, 22(6), 469–493.

Geher, G., Rolon, V., Holler, R., Baroni, A., Gleason, M., Nitza, E., Sullivan, G., Thomson, G., & Di Santo, J. M. (2019). You’re dead to me! The evolutionary psychology of social estrangements and social transgressions. Current Psychology. doi: 10.1007/s12144-019-00381-z

Lo, Y., Au-Yeung, O., & Lin, M. (2015). Does content matter? The effect of remorseful tone on length of prison sentence Asian Journal of Social Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1111/ajsp.12112

Trivers, R. (1985). Social evolution. Menlo Park, CA: Benjamin/Cummings.