STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
OK. If you've ever looked after a group of children, chances are you've tried to break up a squabble using the following words: Come on now, just say you're sorry. If your advice was met with stony-faced resistance, you will want to listen to this. NPR's Shankar Vedantam joins us regularly to discuss social science research, including some research on the psychological power of not apologizing. Shankar, welcome back to the program.
SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Thanks.
INSKEEP: Not sorry to have you here. So what do you mean, not apologizing? What is this about?
VEDANTAM: Well, you know, Steve, I almost feel we should warn parents to turn off the radio in case their kids are listening to the next segment, and here's why.
INSKEEP: OK. Four minutes, four minutes. OK, go ahead, for those still listening.
VEDANTAM: Apologies present us with a puzzle and the puzzle is kids find it hard to do, adults find it hard to do. It's even hard when it's completely rational. So, in the criminal justice system, for example, you have situations where someone is being found guilty and they're awaiting sentencing and the only thing that could reduce the severity of their sentence is if they say I'm sorry.
And time and time again, people refuse to apologize. So Tyler Okimoto, who's a researcher at the University of Queensland in Australia, along with his colleagues Michael Wenzel and Kyli Hedrick, they decided to conduct some psychological experiments to understand why people refuse to apologize. Now, parents have been telling their kids for years, look, just say you're sorry. You're going to feel better about yourself.
Okimoto finds that parents have been telling their kids the truth, but they haven't been telling their kids the whole truth. Here he is:
TYLER OKIMOTO: We do find that apologies do make apologizers feel better, but the interesting thing is that refusals to apologize also makes people feel better and, in fact, in some cases, it makes them feel even better than an apology would have.
VEDANTAM: So what he does is he asks a number of people to remember times when they've harmed someone and most people, of course, remember trivial things; domestic quarrels and stuff like that. But some people also remember serious harms they've done. They remember crimes such as theft. And Okimoto does two things. He asked them, did you actually apologize in real life? And then, second, he conducts a laboratory experiment where he asked them to compose an email where they either apologize or they refuse to apologize.
And what he finds is that both in real life as well as in the laboratory, refusing to apologize increases your feelings of status and increases your feelings of integrity.
INSKEEP: You feel like you have more integrity because you refuse to apologize for something that you know you should apologize for?
VEDANTAM: That's exactly right. The human mind is a wonderful thing, Steve.
INSKEEP: OK. So what is the conclusion here? We should never apologize for anything.
VEDANTAM: Well, actually, there are huge interpersonal costs in not apologizing and not just between individuals, between groups. I mean, think about conflicts that have been stuck for decades because one side can't tell another side, look, we're really sorry about what we did. The value of Okimoto's research is it starts to get a handle on why people find it so hard to apologize. Here he is again:
OKIMOTO: When you refuse to apologize, it actually makes you feel more empowered. That power and control seems to translate into greater feelings of self-worth.
INSKEEP: I think I'm getting this because when you apologize, you are putting your fate in someone else's hands. They will accept the apology or not, or respond however they do. When you say I will not apologize, you are still in control.
VEDANTAM: Yeah, and I think this research actually reminds me of the value of something that philosophers have been saying for a very long time, which is being able to apologize is not a sign of weakness. It's actually a sign of strength because if you look at the people who find it difficult to apologize, it's people who feel threatened, people who feel an apology would somehow make them extremely vulnerable.
INSKEEP: And, of course, if you're a little kid being asked to apologize, you feel vulnerable. You're little to begin with, and it almost suggests that maybe a parent would want to approach that situation a different way.
VEDANTAM: Yeah, and not just for kids, but for adults as well, because our first instinct when someone refuses to apologize to do the right thing, our first instinct is to coerce them into an apology, to make them do the right thing. The problem is that only threatens further that sense of not having any control. Okimoto's research, I think, actually mirrors something that we're seeing in a number of other areas of research, which is that one reason people find it difficult to give up biases is that giving up those biases is somehow threatening.
And our instinct to force them into doing the right thing, it's an instinct that can work very well in courtroom situations, but if you're actually trying to change people's behavior, love and support might be more effective.
INSKEEP: Because if not, people end up giving that apology that they don't really mean.
VEDANTAM: They're completely insincere.
INSKEEP: Sorr-eee. I'm sorry if you're offended. There are a variety of ways to do that. Well, Shankar, we're not too sorry that you came by.
VEDANTAM: Thanks, Steve.
INSKEEP: Shankar Vedantam, regularly joins us to talk about social science research. You can follow him on Twitter @HiddenBrain, just as you can follow this program @MorningEdition and @NPRInskeep.
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