Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Jun 23, 2015

Self-Affirmation Promotes Better Apologies

Image of pink roses with an I'm Sorry card

By Karina Schumann

You slipped up. It was your night to take care of dinner, and when your partner asked you why it wasn’t done, you snapped and demanded he or she get off your back. You’ve taken a breather, but now it’s time to face your partner. What will you choose to say?

The existing research suggests that it would be beneficial for you and your relationship to offer an apology to your partner, especially if your apology includes more of the eight basic elements (remorse, responsibility, offer of repair, explanation, promise to behave better, acknowledgement of harm, admission of wrongdoing, request for forgiveness). Apologies that include more of these elements encourage reconciliation by decreasing feelings of anger and blame toward the transgressor, increasing perceptions of apology sincerity, and promoting forgiveness (Kirchhoff, Wagner, & Strack, 2012; Scher & Darley, 1997; Schumann, 2012).

Given these benefits, why would you choose to mumble a feeble “sorry about that” to your partner rather than offer a heartfelt, comprehensive apology? One possibility is that it feels too threatening to do so. Committing an interpersonal offense can threaten your identity as a good and respectable person, as an offense implies that you have acted inappropriately and possibly harmed another person. Apologizing comprehensively can add to this threat, as many of the elements require you to admit fault (e.g., “I made a mistake”), recognize the harmful nature of your actions (e.g., “I know I’ve upset you”), promise change (e.g., “I won’t neglect my dinner responsibilities again”), convey emotions like shame or regret (e.g., “I’m embarrassed”), and offer a plea for forgiveness (e.g., “Please forgive me”). These are all expressions that can make you feel guilty and vulnerable, feelings you are likely motivated to avoid. In fact, rather than offering these threatening elements, you might choose to protect your self-integrity from the guilt of committing an offense by using defensive strategies, including justifications (e.g., “I had more important things to do”), victim blaming (e.g., “I wouldn’t have snapped if you hadn’t nagged me”), excuses (e.g., “Someone called and distracted me”), and minimizations (e.g., “It’s not that late”). These defensive strategies can be temporarily beneficial to you by protecting your self-worth, but they come with the potential cost of aggravating your partner further and hindering reconciliation.

In light of the benefits associated with offering comprehensive apologies, I aimed to discover a method for increasing apology comprehensiveness and reducing the use of defensive strategies. Because I reasoned that feelings of threat pose a barrier to transgressors’ willingness to offer comprehensive apologies, I examined whether self-affirmation could buffer against this threat and consequently promote more effective apologies. Self-affirmation theory (Steele, 1988) posits that people can protect their self-integrity from threats by reflecting on other important values and sources of self-worth. Reflecting on core values allows people to adopt a broader view of the self, weakening the implications of a threat for their self-integrity. With their self-integrity intact, they can bypass defensive behaviors aimed at protecting the self from the threat and instead respond in more adaptive ways.

I hypothesized that in the domain of interpersonal conflict, giving transgressors an opportunity to affirm important values would put their offense in the context of a global narrative of self-integrity. By allowing them to maintain their self-integrity, they would feel free to focus on the needs of the victim and the relationship (i.e., by offering more comprehensive apologies) rather than on the need to protect their self-integrity (i.e., by using defensive strategies).

I tested this idea in two studies. In each study, participants were randomly assigned to either a traditional values affirmation or control condition. They then recalled an unresolved conflict in which they were the transgressor, and indicated what they would say to the person they had harmed. These responses were then coded by independent observers for the presence of each of the eight apology elements and four defensive strategies. In both studies, affirmed participants offered more comprehensive apologies and used fewer defensive strategies than control participants. Study 2 demonstrated that these effects occurred whether the affirmation was delivered before or after participants recalled their offense, and that they could not be explained by changes in mood.

These studies reveal a simple, theory-based method for promoting more effective responses from transgressors, and therefore provide insight into the motivational conflict that transgressors might experience after committing a transgression: Protect the relationship, or protect the self? Following an offense, transgressors’ need to protect their self-integrity might prevent them from offering an appropriate response, thus further threatening the wellbeing of the relationships they care about. But with their self-integrity protected, transgressors can focus on addressing the emotional and psychological needs of the person they hurt. So the next time you offend someone, take a moment to remind yourself of what matters in your life, then try your hand at offering a non-defensive, heartfelt apology. It can be challenging, but it might feel better than you think.

Karina Schumann is a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University. Her research explores the psychological antecedents and consequences of various aspects of the conflict resolution process, including apologies, empathy, forgiveness, and revenge.

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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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