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The History of 'I'm Sorry'

It comes down to what's in it for us.

Is it just me, or do we all find ourselves, every now and again, feeling like we need to apologize? In my life, this often arises in situations like the following:

  • “Sorry I was late – I really apologize for that.”
  • “I’m sorry that I ate that last piece of steak that was in the fridge–I know that you were saving it and I have no idea what I was thinking.”
  • “I am so sorry that I didn’t respond to that email. Seriously!”

And so forth. If you are like me, you lead a typically busy and complex modern North American life–and this fact colors your day-to-day interactions. You may run into situations like these with some regularity–as you rarely do things perfectly. Sometimes, you just have to apologize.

As an evolutionist, I’m curious about the evolutionary psychology of apologetic behaviors. What functions do such behaviors serve? Are there comparable kinds of behaviors in other species? Are there specialized mechanisms that people employ to distinguish genuine from insincere apologies? Can the evolutionary perspective help us understand the nature of apologizing as well as the nature of politeness-related behaviors in general? If you’re at all familiar with my work (see Geher, 2014), you know what I think!

The Evolutionary Function of Apologies

In a profound example of evolutionary scholarship, Robert Trivers (1985) argued that many of our politeness-related behaviors and social-emotional responses are rooted in the fact that we are a species typified by both a need to belong and be included in social circles, and a long history of reciprocal altruism. Reciprocal altruism (Trivers, 1971) is an apparent, superficial form of “altruism” in which an individual will help another–but with the expectation of receiving help in return at a future point: I’ll scratch your back, but I expect you to scratch mine later. From this perspective, reciprocal altruism is ultimately helpful to the helper, or the apparent altruist. As Trivers sees it, this is how apparent altruism between non-kin could have evolved.

Species vary in terms of the degree to which they demonstrate reciprocal altruism. But humans show it in spades. Ever help a neighbor move a piece of furniture? You sort of expect that he or she might help you at a future point. Ever drive a friend to the airport? You sort of expect that favor to be returned. Ever cover the responsibilities of a co-worker? Yeah, jot that one down mentally–she owes you one! And so forth. This is how we operate–and this is how people are able to thrive in large social groups.

The fact of reciprocal altruism in humans, as Trivers points out, leads to various social-emotional aspects of human psychology. If you’re part of a species in which reciprocal altruism is basic, it is evolutionarily beneficial to have a matching psychology that helps facilitate success in the domain of reciprocal altruism. So Trivers hypothesizes that the following psychological states evolved:

  • Feeling sorry (or experiencing guilt) motivates a person to work to repair relationships that he or she may have damaged in some way.
  • Apologizing is a kind of social behavior that is rooted in the emotional state of feeling sorry – it expresses to another the fact that you are sorry that you (wittingly or unwittingly) inflicted costs on him or her–and that you are motivated to help correct things.
  • Expressing gratitude shows others that you appreciate the altruism that they have thrown your way–and is a public signal that you, yourself, can be counted on to reciprocate at some future point, and that people will be rewarded for helping you in particular.
  • Accepting an apology (a sister to forgiving) is a kind of social behavior that shows that you are willing to trust a person to be part of your circle of reciprocal altruists moving forward.
  • Expressing moral outrage is often directed at someone in the small social group who is not reciprocating altruism–a “freerider” who cannot be counted on to reciprocate altruism. It can have the effect of isolating a non-altruist, which is bad for that individual (who may then go into “I’m sorry” mode), but good for others in the group.

These social-emotional states all serve important, evolutionarily relevant functions. Guilt and feeling sorry help motivate an individual to set things straight with others in his or her circle–helping him or her maintain a reputation as a potential altruist who can be counted on. Such a reputation is hugely important in succeeding in any human social group.

Apologizing for anything that might possibly inflict costs on another is a signal of saying, “Look, I know that what I did messed you up, but I didn’t mean it. It was not my intention to hurt you.” This goes a long way. I’d rather be friends with someone who hurt me unwittingly than with someone who hurt me as a result of a cold, calculated plan.

Expressing gratitude shows that I appreciate the other-oriented behaviors of members in my group – and such an expression benefits those who help by expressing high regard for them publicly. A tendency toward expressing gratitude–especially if it’s genuine–will, thus, help one remain a likely target of future altruistic acts by others in the group.

Accepting an apology (or forgiving) is also beneficial in a context replete with reciprocal altruism. If I accept an apology from someone, then there’s something of an unstated pact about the future, especially if the acceptance is public. In such a scenario, members of the group all sort of know that there’s a more-stated-than-usual agreement that this person will not inflict future costs on me.

Expressions of moral outrage–such as an upstanding student saying, “Can you believe that she cheated on that exam when the professor left the room, in front of everyone!?”–have multiple effects: The whistle-blower gains in status by expressing something that potentially has benefits for everyone in the group–and the reputation of the transgressor is blemished, providing useful information for others regarding that individual’s likely level of reciprocal altruistic behaviors in the future. Of course, this all leads to strong pressures not to inflict costs on others in one’s social group, as you run the risk of getting the whistle blown on you.

In small social circles, allies are critical–and in a species like ours, with a deep history of reciprocal altruism, acquiring and maintaining alliances is foundational. What can we learn from all this? Perhaps some things you first learned when you were a kid. But perhaps you are now seeing it with fresh eyes, through an evolutionary lens. Want to keep connected to others in your social circles? Here are some tips that come straight from evolutionary psychology:

  • Try not to inflict costs on others.
  • If you’ve done something that makes you feel sorry or guilty, think about the evolutionary origins of such states–perhaps you should try to correct something in your social world.
  • If you have inflicted costs on others, don’t hesitate to apologize.
  • When someone helps you or benefits you, go ahead and express gratitude.
  • Try not to be the person who accepts benefits from the group without contributing–without reciprocating altruism. These people get caught, get outed, and often experience reputational damage.

And with all these things, the more genuine and sincere, the better. Humans are amazing at detecting deception–especially when it comes to the domain of reciprocal altruism (see Cosmides & Tooby, 1992).

With all that said, if I owe you a phone call or an email, or if I tried to say something nice to you but blundered and came out with something offensive, or if I clearly didn’t appreciate a meal you worked hard to prepare, please know this: I’m genuinely sorry, and I will make it up to you!

References: Cosmides, L. & Tooby, J. (1992). Cognitive adaptations for social exchange. In J. H. Barkow, L. Cosmides, & J. Tooby (Eds.). The adapted mind: Evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture (pp. 163–228). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Geher, G. (2014). Evolutionary Psychology 101. New York: Springer.

Trivers, R. L. (1971). The evolution of reciprocal altruism. Quarterly Review of Biology, 46, 35–57.

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

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