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Why Some People Refuse to Say They’re Sorry

Putting themselves first, and staying there.

Key points

  • Love may mean never having to say you're sorry—but some people simply just refuse to apologize, period.
  • New research on non-apologies shows the role of power dynamics in shaping who is most likely to take this stand.
  • When in doubt, your relationships will benefit from taking the high road if you think you're in the wrong.

It may be intended as a joke, but when you hear someone say “Sorry, not sorry,” how do you react? In some contexts, it may truly be funny, such as when a fitness instructor decides to add another 10 pushups to your routine. You understand perfectly well that this is actually for your benefit, and that this person is simply using this catchphrase to motivate you to work harder. Outside of these clearly tongue-in-cheek situations, though, what happens when someone really won’t apologize for an act that has harmed you or made you sad?

Perhaps you’ve put together what you believe to be a great plan for an afternoon baby shower. You’ve spent hours combing through catalogs of games and prizes that you believe are certain to be enjoyed by everyone there. Much to your annoyance and distress, though, one of the parent-to-be’s relatives sends a group email to everyone who’s going to be invited, complaining that your ideas aren’t that original or even fun. When you confront this person and ask for an apology, they come back at you with the “Sorry, not sorry” retort. In their opinion, your plans were doomed to fail and someone needed to intervene before it was too late.

As you try to soothe your injured feelings, you might stop and wonder why this individual needed to behave in such a cruel and inconsiderate manner. According to a new study by York University’s Joshua R. Guilfoyle and colleagues (2022), you might need look no further than their need for power. You’re the one with the leadership role, not them. However, they can’t stand the idea that someone else is making decisions. Their desire to humiliate you, and then their unwillingness to apologize, can be explained by this simple lust for control.

Power and the Non-Apology

People who like to be in charge, Guilfoyle and his coauthors maintain, seek to satisfy their own rewards and achieve their own goals. Called the “Behavioral Approach System,” or “BAS,” this orientation combines with an exclusive focus on themselves to lead them to engage in “disinhibited ways to achieve their goals." People on the receiving end of this grab for power, i.e. the powerless, seek to avoid anything that could lead them to feel threatened, uncertain, and victimized. Being high on the “Behavioral Inhibition System,” or “BIS,” they continually look to read the signals that others send their way.

Drawing the connection between power dynamics and apologies, the Canadian researchers propose that “power (or lack thereof) activates individuals’ approach/inhibition system(s) and cognitively focuses attention on the self or others.” People with the BAS orientation pay less attention to their victims than to themselves, so they don’t even notice that they’ve hurt someone else. By the same token, they have a “high self-focused desire to avoid threats associated with apologizing."

Turning now to the “non-apology,” the York U. investigators point out that, ordinarily, those who commit the wrong (i.e. the transgressors) want to protect their image by either seeming innocent or finding a way to shift the blame to someone else. Those high in power should be particularly likely to avert direct culpability so that they can preserve their own holier-than-thou image.

Testing the Power Dynamics of Apologies and Non-Apologies

Putting all these elements together, Guilfoyle and his coauthors tested the hypothesis that those high in the BAS orientation (“powerful transgressors”) would be less motivated to offer a true apology and instead use a non-apology when they've done something wrong.

Using an experimental design, the York U. research team compared patterns of apologies between participants randomly assigned to one of two conditions in which they either were primed to feel powerful or primed to feel that others had control over them. The sample consisted of 128 undergraduates averaging 20 years of age.

In the high-power manipulation, participants received instructions to think about a situation in which they had some form of control over someone else (e.g. “a situation in which you controlled the ability of another person… to get something they wanted, or were in a position to evaluate those individuals.” The control was flipped in the low-power condition so that the participants recalled a time they were at the receiving end of this treatment.

Next, all participants read a scenario in which they were instructed to imagine that they were a transgressor: at a party, they left their date behind and started kissing and dancing with someone else. The partner, seeing this behavior, demanded that they leave. Participants then rated themselves on their likelihood of making apologies to their partner with items such as acknowledging what they did, feeling apologetic, admitting responsibility, and saying “sorry.” Items testing non-apologetic responses asked participants to rate themselves in their likelihood of feeling defensive, making excuses, and blaming the victim.

Consistent with what the authors predicted, individuals made to feel powerful were less likely to offer apologies than those who recalled situations in which others had power over them. Subsequent experiments the York U. authors reported used a similar paradigm to investigate the added effects of self-other focus, supporting the initial proposal that high power amplifies the self-focus (vs. other-focus) which, in turn, makes it even more likely that someone will offer a non-apology instead of an apology.

What You Can Learn About Handling the Non-Apology

Returning to the example of the baby shower, you can now see clearly that the non-apology you received can be understood as a power move. However, you don’t have to relegate yourself to the BIS orientation in which you let this ungracious behavior make you feel threatened. Yes, it would have been nice if this person had offered a sincere apology, but the fact that they didn't has nothing to do with your own behavior.

Sticking to your position in these situations can do more than just make you feel better in the moment. You can also see just how important it is to be sincere in your own apologies when you’re the one in the wrong.

As Guilfoyle and his fellow researchers point out, “Apologies can serve to repair relationships following a transgression." Remember that the power manipulation required only that participants think about a time they were in control or not, not that they actually were. By reminding yourself of how it felt to be at the mercy of someone else, you can shift out of BAS and into the more relationship-restoring BIS orientation.

To sum up, although it may feel better temporarily to offer a non-apology to get yourself off the hook, the York U. study shows the advantage of taking the high road. Leave off the “not sorry” part of your apology, and you will be much more likely to put your relationships back on that road to repair.

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Guilfoyle, J. R., Struthers, C. W., van Monsjou, E., Shoikhedbrod, A., Eghbali, N., & Kermani, M. (2022). Sorry, not sorry: The effect of social power on transgressors’ apology and nonapology. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied. doi: 10.1037/xap0000392