Sorry about your research: the science of apologies

How many times do you apologize per day? 

We are a nation of apologists. Do we mean it? Is this just a euphemism to settle tension? Or do we really have that much to be sorry for?

Studies show it depends on if you’re a man or a woman.

Research psychologists in Canada have found that both genders are equally willing to apologize. However, women apologize more often than men; in fact four times as much.  The disparity exists in what constitutes a transgression, and therefore requires an apology. Men, the studies suggest, have a higher threshold for insult and insensitivity – and therefore see less need to apologize.  

Who we apologize too is just as interesting as how often.  We apologies to friends first – 66% of the time;  strangers 22% of the time;  romantic partners 11% of the time;  and family members 7% of the time.  Sorry mom and dad:  that’s just the way it goes.

In total, six types of “I’m sorry” exist. Some are heartfelt. And others, well – they are get out of jail cards. Take your pick – the heartfelt, strategic, defensive, contingent, too late-better late than never, or the bully apology.

Here’s how they work:

The heartfelt apology:  “I am truly sorry hunny, I know it hurt you.”  Well intentioned – both parties are truly sorry. It is the least used and most meaningful.  Go figure.

The strategic apology:  “Let’s move on, wait, I am sorry!” A half-hearted apology aimed at stopping the hurt.  Hallmark cards, dove chocolate and roses.  (I’ve heard that before)

The defensive apology:  “I’m sorry, but someone had to tell you.”  It’s a play on words. No true remorse exists; usually just manipulation and defensiveness.  (There’s usually a “but” in there somewhere)

The contingent apology:  “I’m sorry if someone took offense at my candor.”  Enter the great “if.” The person does not know, does not care, and does not admit “if” they have offended.

The too late apology:  “I’ve thought about it and I guess you were right to be offended.”  Well, most relationship experts say better late than never. These reprobates capitalize, needing months, days, or weeks to find the ego-strength to apologize for the past.

The bully apology:  “I’m sorry.  Now let me in.”  This type is characterized by the ultimate form of Kleenex therapy for relationship distress. Characterized by artificiality, this type of apology is used as an excuse or maneuver to accomplish the wrongdoer’s agenda.

If a lot of these apologies types sound insincere, that’s because the most common reason for apologizing is to keep peace and preserve harmony:  some 90% of apologies, in fact. 

The data strongly suggests that we are less remorseful for our actions than we are good at surfing through social waters. 

If you want to know that an apology is sincere rather than practical, you need to look for certain ingredients. Eight elements in total compromise sincere apologies including: remorse, acceptance of responsibility, admitted wrong, acknowledgement of hurt, promise for improvement, forgiveness, reparation, and a good ol’ explanation.

That’s good to know, but, can the standardized testing of all the apologies in your life be psychologically healthy? 

Carl Rogers, one of the founding fathers of humanistic psychology, spoke of the need for a person to feel unconditional positive regard, empathy, and congruence in the therapeutic environment. The sense of “self-relatedness” within a relationship is key. Rogers’ ideas extend to all relationships; and perhaps the most important thing is to focus less on the mechanics of the apology and more on the totality of the interaction you’re having.  Are you communicating unconditional positive regard?  Is the person you’re talking to?  If you are, the chances for a real breakthrough are significantly higher. 

Maybe if we effectively and sincerely communicated this regard to our family and friends we (and they) could apologize a little less, and spend more time enjoying each other’s company.  Peace and harmony are great, but genuine affection is so much better. 

 – Liz Schreiber

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