For example, in one experiment, undergraduate students were told they were participating in an online group discussion with three other students, plus an experimenter posing to them a series of questions ranging from politics to adjustment to college. Risen and Gilovich write that, “the experimenter told participants that productive discussions are open, honest and insightful and that while discussing mildly sensitive topics, they should try to make comments that facilitate a productive discussion.” At least, that’s what the students thought was happening while sitting alone in their lab cubicles. In reality, there were only two other people online—the experimenter, who also assumed the roles of two sham participants (the “harmdoer” and the “coercer” in the coerced apology condition), and one other real participant who served as the “onlooker” to the social offense event. This main event was scheduled to occur when the fourth question was posed to the target participant.
This fourth question was written to encourage participants to simply respond “no.” The experimenter asked the target student, “Do you think that the United States is doing everything it possibly can to provide equal rights for its gay citizens? Yes or no?” (Seven of forty-nine participants said “yes” and were excluded from the final analysis.) After the target student said “no,” the experimenter delivered the social offense in the role of the “harmdoer” by saying, “you should just go move to Australia or Canada or something--this discussion thing would be more productive if you quit being such an ungrateful baby.... realized that you’re lucky to live here, and stopped focusing only on the negative.”
Although all participants were exposed to this social offense, either as the target or the observer, they were randomly assigned to one of three conditions. In the spontaneous condition, the “harmdoer” immediately wrote an apology: “You know what—that was too harsh. I’m sorry.” In the coerced condition, the experimenter wrote as the “coercer”: “I can’t believe you said that. That was totally uncalled for. You need to apologize.” The “harmdoer” then wrote an apology identical to the one in the spontaneous condition. Finally, for those in the no apology condition, the discussion continued without the “harmdoer” apologizing. For all conditions, three additional questions were posed without incident before the discussion came to an end and participants were asked to evaluate the other players on a number of dimensions.
The results from these ratings revealed that although the targets “forgave” both the spontaneous apologist and the coerced apologist in equal measure, the observers did so only for the spontaneous apologist. In other words, the targets found both apologists equally likable, selfish, kind, arrogant, rude and compassionate, whereas the observers expressed a clear disdain for the one who apologized only after being coerced into it. Furthermore, while observers said they wanted nothing else to do with the coerced apologist, targets said they wouldn’t mind working with this person again. Observers also recommended that the coerced apologist receive less payment for their participation on the task than they did for the spontaneous apologists, whereas the targets felt that the two types of apologists deserved equal amounts. Why this difference between the targets and observers in their forgiveness of the coerced harmdoer? Risen and Gilovich argue that whereas offended parties are motivated to appear forgiving rather than spiteful, observers (as neutral parties) are expected to be fair and discerning of others’ intentions. As for the non-apologist, as you might expect, this person was disliked most of all—both the targets and observers expressed more anger towards this player than they did for either type of apologist.
However, there’s an important caveat to this finding that even insincere apologies are better than no apology when it comes to recovering precious dividends from one’s sinking relational value. In another experiment, Risen and Gilovich found that when the responsibility for harmdoing is ambiguous, offering a coerced apology can backfire, with observers evaluating the apologist less favorably than someone who offers no apology at all. In this other experiment, participants were told that they’d be competing in a game of “communication skills” against other players. Each undergraduate participant sat back-to-back with another player (actually a confederate of the experimenters) as this other person put a set of K’nex toy pieces together and gave directions to the target about how to put an identical set of pieces together in the same way. The target was instructed to follow these directions without asking questions or making any comments. For each matching piece during this 5-minute game, the pair earned money (25 cents). Another participant (the observer) simply watched on as this was happening, silently judging.
Like the previous experiment, a seemingly unscripted social offense was inserted into the procedure. Here, the confederate player began by giving unclear instructions, answered his cell phone in the middle of the game, chatting idly for 1.5 minutes (“What?.... No?.... I can’t believe he did that… Really?”), then hung up and continued giving confusing instructions to the target. Against the backdrop of this laboratory ruse, participants were in fact randomly assigned to one of three different apology conditions. In the spontaneous condition, the “harmdoer” turned to the target and said, “I’m sorry, I really screwed that up for you.” In the coerced condition, the harmdoer apologized only after a confederate observer castigated the harmdoer, “That was terrible. I can’t believe you took a phone call. You totally ruined it for him [or her]. You really need to apologize.” Finally, in the no apology condition, the harmdoer just sighed and began counting the number of completed pieces.
As in the foregoing experiment, targets forgave both of the apologists equally but expressed lingering anger towards the player who didn’t apologize at all. For the silent observers, however, the person who offered a coerced apology was judged even more harshly than the one who offered no apology at all. Risen and Gilovich point out that this intriguing finding “is consistent with findings from the legal arena, which suggest that apologies may only benefit harmdoers if their responsibility for the harm is clear. When the responsibility is clear, apologies increase the chance of plaintiffs and defendants reaching a settlement. If responsibility is ambiguous, however, apologies can be costly to the defendant because of the admission of responsibility.” The authors suggest that, in the present case, observers may have actually given the harmdoer the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps the phone call was indeed an emergency, or maybe some observers blamed the participant for not being able to follow muddled instructions on the puzzle game—until the harmdoer apologized.
And speaking of apologies that are better left unsaid, I may have recently offered one or two myself.
In this column presented by Scientific American Mind magazine, research psychologist Jesse Bering of Queen's University Belfast ponders some of the more obscure aspects of everyday human behavior. Ever wonder why yawning is contagious, why we point with our index fingers instead of our thumbs or whether being breastfed as an infant influences your sexual preferences as an adult? Get a closer look at the latest data as “Bering in Mind” tackles these and other quirky questions about human nature. Sign up for the RSS feed or friend Dr. Bering on Facebook and never miss an installment again.