Talk Is Cheap: Four Do's and Don'ts for Avoiding Cheap Talk

Thanking and apologizing have different hidden costs than bragging and blaming.

Posted Mar 15, 2019

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From a young age, we all learn the universal value of genuinely saying “thank you.” Every kid also learns the paramount importance of being able to swallow your pride and apologize by genuinely saying, “I’m sorry.”

Generations ago, songwriter Bernie Taupin addressed how tough it is for so many of us to be contrite and apologize when he wrote the lyrics to Elton John’s 1976 top-ten classic, “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word.” 

Why's It so Hard for so Many of Us to Apologize and Say "I’m Sorry"?

Recently, two researchers from Carnegie Mellon University set out to identify why some people find it really hard to apologize and say this simple, two-word sentence: “I’m sorry.” They also created a series of novel experiments to identify the psychological mechanism underlying the communication of thanking, bragging, and blaming as part of a new framework they’ve created called “Responsibility Exchange Theory."

This research was spearheaded by Shereen Chaudhry, when she was a doctoral student at CMU's Department of Social and Decision Sciences, along with her co-author George Loewenstein. Their aptly titled paper (Chaudhry & Lowenstein, 2019) about this new framework, “Thanking, Apologizing, Bragging, and Blaming: Responsibility Exchange Theory and the Currency of Communication,” was recently published in the journal Psychological Review.  

The underlying hypothesis behind Responsibility Exchange Theory is that for any “communicator” expressing each of these four modes of communication (e.g., thanking, apologizing, bragging, and blaming), there are varying “costs.” As the authors explain in their paper:

"In this article, we propose a “responsibility exchange theory” that explains why these communications are not costless, and which draws connections between four forms of communication that have not previously been connected: thanking, apologizing, bragging, and blaming. All four of these communications relay information about credit or blame, and thus introduce image-based costs and benefits for both the communicator and the recipient of communication: Each of the four communications involves a trade-off between appearing competent and appearing warm. By formalizing these social psychological insights with a utility-based approach to modeling communication, and by applying game theoretic analysis, we offer new insights about social communication."

Do You Think Saying "I'm Sorry" Makes Someone Seem Weak?

As would be expected, Chaudhry and Lowenstein found that thanking and apologizing were a dyad that made the speaker seem warm, caring, and generous. However, a surprisingly large percentage of people felt that saying “I’m sorry” and apologizing came with a hidden cost of appearing incompetent or weak.

On the flip side of this same coin, the dyad of blaming and bragging—which at first glance might appear to make someone seem strong and highly competent—came with a built-in cost of making the person being braggadocios or refusing to take responsibility for his or her wrongdoing appear inconsiderate and self-centered.

"All four of these communications are tools used to transfer responsibility from one person to another," Chaudhry, who is currently a postdoctoral fellow at UPenn's Wharton Risk Center, said in a statement. "They relay information about credit or blame, and they involve image-based trade-offs between appearing competent and appearing warm. These dynamics capture why thanking and apologizing are touchstones of 'polite' speech in our culture while blaming and bragging are often considered taboo.”  

"Our framework helps to make sense of a diverse body of research documenting the importance of these forms of communications," Lowenstein added. "Research has shown that these communications—and their absence—can make or break relationships and affect material outcomes ranging from restaurant tips to medical malpractice settlements."

What Is the Biggest No-No When It Comes to Apologizing Effectively?

According to Chaudhry and Lowenstein, Responsibility Exchange Theory helps to explain the phenomenon of non-apology apologies (i.e., nonpology or fauxpology), when someone technically speaks the words “I’m sorry” without taking responsibility or showing true remorse. Based on Responsibility Exchange Theory, an effective apology must “cost” the apologizer something for the recipient of an apology to feel that the apology has value.

Remember: If you are seeking atonement and want to make your apology have currency, make sure to avoid using non-apology apology catchphrases, such as “I’m sorry you feel that way,” or "I'm sorry you feel that I hurt your feelings."

Any nonpology phrasing that shrugs off personal responsibility is a big no-no. Most people on the receiving end of a lame non-apology apology instantly spot these “fauxpology” red flags as a sign of disingenuous and disposable cheap talk. 

"Our theory also can shed light on why, as previous research has found, women tend to apologize more than men. Society often imposes a 'warmth premium' on women, making it more important for them to be perceived of as warm as opposed to competent," Chaudhry said.

Chaudhry and Lowenstein acknowledge that this study is only a first step towards creating a roadmap for future research and investigation. It’s too early to know precisely how the new Responsibility Exchange Theory adds value to the growing body of academic literature addressing the power of gratitude and asking forgiveness as well as the pitfalls of hubris and victimhood culture. More research and benefit-cost analysis of thanking, apologizing, bragging, and blaming are needed. 


Shereen Chaudhry and George Lowenstein. "Thanking, Apologizing, Bragging, and Blaming: Responsibility Exchange Theory and the Currency of Communication.” Psychological Review (First published: February 14, 2019) DOI: 10.1037/rev0000139

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