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Barriers to Apologizing and How to Overcome Them

New research shows three main obstacles.

Source: kalhh/Pixabay

In a paper currently in press, Schumann reviews three major barriers to apologizing, and considers potential ways to overcome them.1

1. Limited concern for the victim and/or the relationship

Apologizing requires that we recognize and admit to having harmed someone. If we decide to apologize, we also need to accept the risk that the apology could be rejected by the victim.

Therefore, unless the transgressor feels a real desire to express her concern for the victim’s well-being, and a wish to repair the relationship, she might refrain from offering an apology.

Schumann notes that transgressors who have low “empathic concern, perspective taking, and care for others’ welfare,” those who have “intentionally harmed the victim and consequently feel less guilty,” and ones who are more “averse to relationship closeness” are less likely to apologize.1

Further, disproportionate focus on oneself, higher levels of narcissism, and sense of entitlement are also negatively associated with the disposition to apologize.2

2. Assumption of apology ineffectiveness

Sometimes people find apologizing difficult because they erroneously assume that it will have a number of negative consequences.

For example, one purpose of offering an apology is to elicit forgiveness, but people often “underestimate the positive effects that an apology has on the victim, like the likelihood of forgiveness or of a restored relationship.”4

On the other hand, when transgressors “see the victim as willing or likely to forgive them,” they are “more willing to apologize,” and their apologies are “less defensive.”1

3. Perception of apology as a threat to one’s self-image

We want to be thought of as good and moral people. Therefore, harming others (e.g., through social exclusion), may result in the experience of shame, guilt, and even self-dehumanization.3

Despite these unpleasant emotional states, many people refuse to apologize. Why? Perhaps because they “overestimate the negative implication of apologizing, negatively others will perceive them after they apologized.”4

Schumann suggests that transgressors who have “more fragile self-views, such as when they are lower in self-esteem,” or are “higher in narcissism,” are less likely to offer an apology.1

How to overcome these barriers?

There is limited research on how to increase a transgressor’s concern for the victim. Thus it is important that future research investigate whether “instructing transgressors to take the victim’s perspective,” or “increasing transgressors’ effort to empathize” would increase the chances of an apology.1

Future research also needs to investigate ways to overcome the second barrier and increase the perception of apology effectiveness. Some possibilities include exposing the transgressors to “accounts of successful apologies,” or alternatively, to encourage them to “generate their own messages about the benefits of apologies.”1

Three recent studies have examined ways to overcome the third barrier, the perception of threat to self-image.

In the first study, affirmation of one’s values resulted in more comprehensive apologies.5 According to self-affirmation theory, when faced with information that is threatening to one’s sense of self (e.g., being seen as a wrongdoer), reflecting on one’s values and other sources of self-worth reaffirms one’s integrity and reduces distress.

The participants were asked to rank a list of characteristics and values that were important to them (e.g., relationship with the family, art and music appreciation, etc). This task successfully reduced the self-image threat of apologizing.

A second study examined the value of offense-relevant self-affirmation. Researchers argued that while global self-affirmation can reduce self-image threats, it does not address the specific value that has violated by the offense (and the shame surrounding it), and thus might not encourage true reconciliation.

One group of participants were asked to acknowledge the value that they had violated in committing the offense, write why the value was important to them, and finally, to recall times they had acted consistently with this value. Thus addressing their own need for self-forgiveness and “moral identity” repair, these participants were more likely to pursue reconciliation.6

The authors in the third investigation proposed that apologizing can be particularly difficult when personality is seen as fixed because in such cases one’s wrongdoing can be considered a major threat to one’s “stable moral character.”1

As hypothesized, the participants who were asked to read an article on how malleable personality truly was (as opposed to how unchanging it was) were more willing to accept responsibility for their offense and apologize.7


1. Schumann, K (in press). The psychology of offering an apology: Understanding the barriers to apologizing and how to overcome them. Current Directions in Psychological Science. doi: 10.1177/0963721417741709

2. Howell, A. J., Dopko, R. L., Turowski, J. B., & Buro, K. (2011). The disposition to apologize. Personality and Individual Differences, 51, 509-514

3. Bastian, B., Jetten, J., Chen, H., Radke, H. R. M., Harding, J. F., & Fasoli, F. (2013). Losing our humanity: The self-dehumanizing consequences of social ostracism. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39, 156–169.

4. Leunissen, J. M., De Cremer, D., van Dijke, M., & Folmer, C. P. R. (2014). Forecasting errors in the averseness of apologizing. Social Justice Research, 27, 322–339.

5. Schumann, K. (2014). An affirmed self and a better apology: The effect of self-affirmation on transgressors’ responses to victims. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 54, 89–96.

6. Woodyatt, L., & Wenzel, M. (2014). A needs-based perspective on self-forgiveness: Addressing threat to moral identity as a means of encouraging interpersonal and intrapersonal restoration. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 50, 125–135.

7. Schumann, K., & Dweck C. S. (2014). Who accepts responsibility for their transgressions. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 40, 1598–1610.