Restaurant owner and television personality Paula Deen, who became famous for her homestyle Southern cooking and unabashed love of butter, was recently accused of using a racial slur. Deen admitted to the transgression and apologized for it, though some found her comments to be hollow and disingenuous. Following her admission, the Food Network terminated her contract, and a number of sponsors including Smithfield Foods, Home Depot, and Walmart broke ties with her. Some consider these penalties appropriate and deserved, while others view them as excessive or unwarranted. Regardless of whether the penalties were justified, one thing is clear: Her acknowledgement came at a price.
In fact, most apologies exact some toll on the offender, as it can be embarrassing to admit a mistake publicly or even to just one other person. And, as with Deen’s apology, the offender often suffers additional penalties as a result of the admission of guilt. Confession of a wrongdoing can damage a relationship, lead to loss of status or power, or even result in the termination of employment. These common costs may help explain the seemingly widespread reluctance to say, “I’m sorry.” From politicians and professional athletes to friends and co-workers, denial of culpability is far too familiar.
Beyond avoiding the embarrassment and potential penalty associated with admitting a wrongdoing, new research by Tyler Okimoto and colleagues in Australia suggests that there are deeper internal motives for our refusal to apologize. Okimoto's research shows that those who refuse to express remorse maintain a greater sense of control and feel better about themselves than those who take no action after making a mistake.
Such findings may seem paradoxical, given the common wisdom that we should take responsibility for our actions and say we are sorry if we do harm. Indeed, research confirms the benefits of apologies for both victims and offenders. For victims, an apology serves as a form of moral restitution. When you apologize to a person you have offended, you convey a sense of power to that person. The victim can accept or reject the apology, and can extend or withhold forgiveness. As a result, the balance of power shifts from the offender to the offended. Victims may assume a position of superiority when they take the moral high ground and offer mercy to the guilty party, or they may gain a sense of power over the transgressor by denying pardon. Thus for victims, the culprit's admission of guilt and contrition can be restorative.
There are upsides to apologies for the offenders too. By acknowledging personal mistakes and conveying remorse, offenders may diffuse anger and decrease the impending punishment or penalty, enhance their image in the eyes of the victim and other people, regain acceptance in a social group, or restore personal relationships. They may even reduce their own sense of guilt.
Given that apologies offer a relatively simple way to mend relations and heal wounds for victims and offenders, why do people refuse to apologize? Beyond escaping punishment, there may be some psychological benefits to standing one's ground. For example, adopting a self-righteous stance may feed one's need for power. If the act of apologizing restores power to the victim, it may also simultaneously diminish the power of the transgressor. Thus actively denying any wrongdoing may allow the offender to retain the upper hand . If one cannot deny an error entirely, minimizing the error may be the next best thing. Perhaps one reason that many felt Deen’s apology rang hollow was that she attempted to mitigate the severity of her infraction by stating that she only made the racial slur once, with a gun pointed at her head.