People who apologise a lot are seen as more warm and sincere

By Emma Young

We all know a chronic apologiser (maybe you are one). So begins a fascinating new paper that explores how we judge frequent vs rare apologisers — and how this affects the way that we react to their apologies.

An abundance of work has shown that an apology for bad behaviour makes a big difference to the recipient. “Indeed, some scholars even imbue apologies with transformative and miraculous healing qualities,” note Karina Schumann at the University of Pittsburgh and colleagues in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. However, most research in this field has explored the impact of apologies in isolation. This takes no account of a person’s general tendency to apologise. But as we all know, some people apologise readily and frequently, while others don’t.

To explore how people judge frequent and infrequent apologisers, the team focused on perceptions of “communion” and “agency”. Someone high in communion strives for harmony in relationships; they show warmth and a sense of morality, and a care for the interests of others. Agency is more about the individual. A high-agency person is in control of their life; they are seen as being more dominant, powerful, competent and autonomous.

In an initial online study, 406 adults read one of two stories about a fictional character’s typical week. Both stories featured 12 “apology situations”, which were set at work, in a restaurant, with a friend, and so on. In six of these situations, the character had done something that clearly warranted an apology; in the other six, while an apology wasn’t unreasonable, it wasn’t necessary (apologising after interrupting the boss’s workday to ask a question, for example).

In one version of the story, the character apologised in all 12 instances. In the other, they didn’t apologise at all. And the results were clear: the frequent apologiser was judged to be more communal but less agentic than the non-apologiser. Frequent apologising entailed a trade-off, then — but as communion is more important for judgements of what someone else is “like”, it could be worth giving up some perceived agency to get a communion boost.

In a second online study, 300 people who had been in a romantic relationship for at least six months reported on how frequently their partner apologised, and also how sincere and considered their partner’s apologies tended to be. Then they rated their partners for communion and agency. As in the first study, frequent apologisers were seen as being more communal. But this time, they were only rated as being lower in agency if their apologies were typically poor.

Why do frequent but good apologisers avoid taking a hit to their perceived agency? Although accepting a personal wrongdoing carries a cost, giving an excellent, thoughtful apology could also signal that you are skilled at interacting with others — and so competent and in control. Together, these two findings suggest that people should bear in mind both the frequency and quality of their apologies, the researchers note.

The second study also had another component: the participants were asked to imagine that their partner had ridiculed their personal beliefs about a sensitive topic behind their back to a group of friends. They then received one of three fictional responses from their partner. One was unapologetic (“It was no big deal”). Another contained a weak apology (“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to”). In the third, the apology was thoughtful, extensive and expressed sincere regret. The team found that, as might be expected, the high-quality apologies were received best: they resulted in higher scores for feelings of being cared for and for relationship satisfaction. However, a weak apology from a partner who routinely gave strong apologies wasn’t received as badly as the same apology from a partner who was typically bad at apologising. So someone who is generally good at apologising may get the odd free pass.

One notable additional finding from the studies was that whether the apologiser was male or female made no difference to the communion and agency ratings that they received. “Recent media reports suggest that women should refrain from apologising frequently because it undermines their competence,” the team observes. However, this new work suggests that men and women are equally affected in this way. Still, as they also note, “typical women” are judged to be higher in communion and lower in agency than men. So a woman who apologises often might take more of an agency “hit” than a man who does the same. This could be more of an issue in the workplace, perhaps — and this clearly needs investigating. It would also be interesting to know how we judge people who apologise for all kinds of things that aren’t their fault — such as when someone else bumps into them in the street.

It’s also worth noting that few people either apologise all the time or never, as in the first study. And the fictional misdeed in the second study was pretty serious. So the team’s findings might not apply in most everyday scenarios. Still, they feel that the key takeaway message is this: “Apologizing frequently… seems to be beneficial on the whole, and the observed cost to agency appears to be avoidable if one consistently crafts high-quality apologies.”

The Social Consequences of Frequent Versus Infrequent Apologizing

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest