“Sorry seems to be the hardest word,” sang Elton John in G melodic minor back in 1976. The lyrics of his mournful ballad ring true today and express a sentiment much older than Elton John himself: saying sorry and owning your mistakes is hard. Thankfully new research by Tyler Okimoto at the Univerity of Queensland in Australia claims that there may be personal benefits in never apologizing for the things you’ve done wrong.
Though this may sound like a good thing, it presents a bit of a paradox that pits our beliefs against reality. Most people believe it would be better on a moral and psychological level to accept responsibility for our misguided actions. Research exists to back up this position, too. Being apologized to is a sort of moral restitution for the victim. It gives them power and the ability to choose whether to reject the apology or accept it. Control shifts from the offender to the offended when forgiveness is on the line. Whether or not the victim chooses to take the moral highground and offer mercy or withhold it, this sense of power can soften the negative effects of the original wrongdoing.
There are even some benefits to apologizing for the person who did something wrong. By accepting and acknowledging what they did is wrong, they can relieve stress and anger, minimize future repercussions, and improve their public image. And if the apology is sincere, maybe they’ll even have less guilt for what they did.
Even though there are benefits to apologizing for both the offender and offended, people still refuse to do it. This is where Okimoto’s research steps in. Refusing to apologize doesn’t just allow people to avoid direct punishment. Refusing to give the victim the power to accept or deny an admission allows the offender to keep control over the person they did wrong. While this is morally questionable to an observer, the offender may not care.
Refusing to directly apologize also protects someone from betraying their ideologies. Apologies expose hypocrisy in a person’s character. By refusing to offer up guilt, people preserve a sense of self-worth by denying an inconsistency between the way they act and they say they act. If a person who is considered a moral authority (say a priest) does something wrong (sexual assault for instance) and they refuse to admit it, this prevents people from objectively considering him guilty—no matter how damning the evidence may be.
Okimoto conducted two different experiments. In the first, the participants were told to recall a time when they had apologized, refused to apologize, or didn’t resolve a conflict. The researchers asked the people to describe their feelings of power, control, and self-esteem as a result of the incident. If a person didn’t say they were sorry, but had strong feelings of power and control, it was considered being “true to themselves.”
In the second experiment, people were asked to remember an incident wherein they offended someone. Then they drafted a mock email to the victim either apologizing, refusing to apologize, or essentially ignoring the issue. The researchers asked how the exercise made them feel with regards to power and control.
Cindi May writes about the findings for Scientific American:
Reported transgressions varied greatly, from minor accidents and verbal altercations to adultery and criminal behavior. The consequent feelings, however, depended not on the perceived severity of the infraction, but rather the action (or inaction) that followed. Relative to people who took no action after their transgression, both those who apologized and those who refused to apologize felt better about themselves and expressed a higher sense that they were true to themselves. There was an added benefit, though, for refusing to apologize, as participants in the refusal condition reported the highest levels of perceived power.
These findings suggest that apologizing and refusing to apologize may both support an individual’s basic need for independence and power. Both actions can make people feel better about themselves, and allow them to believe that their actions align with their personal values.
These findings might make the offender feel better whether they apologize or refuse to, but without any research I can almost guarantee the victim will not look favorable upon a refusal to apologize. People make mistakes all the time. Sorry may be the hardest word, but it’s almost always the right word.