It’s human nature to want to soften the blow on someone if you’re giving them a hard no or rejection. You know: “Sorry, but I only see you as a friend,” or “Sorry, but I was made an offer that I can’t turn down,” etc. But, according to a fascinating new study, by tacking on that obligatory “sorry,” you’re actually making matters worse for them and worse for you in the long run. In short: you’d be better off not apologizing.
The research, published in Frontiers in Psychology, found that apologizing simply puts the onus of guilt on the recipient. “Our research finds that despite their good intentions, people are going about it the wrong way,” says Dr. Gili Freedman, PhD, the lead author of the study. “They often apologize, but that [just] makes people feel worse and that they have to forgive the rejector before they are ready.”
In other words, though you’ve apologized and subsequently feel better about yourself, the other person is forced to grapple with how to handle your apology.
Freedman and her team at Dartmouth polled 1,000 people to come up with a “good way of saying no” to a “social request.” Roughly 40 percent of respondents included apologies. Freedman then showed those 40 percent a variety of rejection notes; the folks who received notes with explicit apologies reported higher levels of disappointment. In a follow-up test, Freedman took a page from the famous Stanford Prison Experiment and turned her subjects on each other by having rejected folks dole out hot sauce to their rejectors—all the while knowing the rejector abhorred hot sauce. (Freedman has no comment on whether revenge is best served cold or hot.) Finally, Freedman asked participants to view different videos of social rejection. Among those who viewed clips with apologies, the participants agreed that the wronged individual would only express forgiveness out of a feeling of obligation, not out of any feelings of genuine forgiveness.
The research boils down to the simple observation that apologizing is more for the person saying “sorry” than the person hearing it. And to a certain degree, hey, there’s nothing wrong with that.
Let’s put it like this: You were made that offer you can’t turn down. You inform your boss of the situation, replete with that requisite “sorry.” Chances are, your boss will offer up some iteration of, “Oh, that’s okay,” because that’s what the social contract dictates. But deep down, per Freedman’s research, your boss is stewing over feelings of resentment and doesn’t, in fact, find it “okay.”
“It is possible that rejectors may feel better about themselves if they apologize,” Freedman explains, but notes that more research needs to be done to determine the ever-persistent question: why. “We intend to examine when rejectors are motivated to feel better about themselves and when they would rather put the rejectee’s needs ahead of their own.”
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