Why Apologize?

People often do feel better after apologizing -- though not as good as they do after being asked to apologize and refusing.

sorry sky writing.jpg
butapa / flickr

Discussions of social science research often seem to tell us more about how we like to think about social science research than they do about anything else. That was certainly the case for a report on NPR this week about apologies. In the broadcast, anchor Steve Innskeep and reporter Shankar Vedantam framed the discussion as shocking new information for parents -- going so far as to lightly suggest that parents should send their kids away from the radio (causing my nine-year-old to look at me conspiratorily.)

The big reveal that nine-year-olds shouldn't hear? No one likes to apologize. More than that, the study showed that not apologizing makes people feel better about themselves; you feel more empowered and more self-satisfied when you refuse to admit that you're wrong. Vedantam suggested that this flies in the face of the standard parental argument, "Look, just say you're sorry, you're going to feel better about yourself."

The thing is, that's not a standard argument for kids. I don't think I've ever heard a parent use it. The study's author Tyler G. Okimoto, a senior lecturer in business at the University of Queensland, noted that people often do feel better after apologizing -- though not as much better as they do after being asked to apologize and refusing.

But that really is not why you'd want your child to apologize.

The reason to teach kids to apologize isn't to make the wrong-doer feel better. It's to make the person wronged feel better. Secondarily, it's to make the wrong-doer feel worse, or at least, to make the wrong-doer understand that he or she has done something wrong and unacceptable.

Okimoto and the other researchers argue that, even if not apologizing raises self-worth, apologizing has many other benefits. It strengthens community and reduces interpersonal violence. Vedantam concludes that people who have a low sense of self-worth have trouble apologizing in the service of these greater goods. Or, as he says, it's strong people, not weak people, who can apologize. He concludes that children feel vulnerable, and so are unwilling to apologize. Rather than coercing apology, he says, it would be better to create a loving environment, where the children feel safe and confident enough to apologize.

Which seems reasonable, but rather overlooks the fact that one way you create a safe and loving environment is by making it clear that treating each other badly is wrong and won't be tolerated. Insisting on apologies may make the wrong-doer unhappy -- but it assures those who are wronged that what has happened to them is, in fact, wrong, and that someone has their back. As a parent, you're not just trying to increase your children's sense of self worth; you're trying to turn them into a civilized human being. Part of doing that is teaching them that they need to think about others' feelings, not just their own. Which means that when they do wrong, they need to apologize -- a lesson which is more, not less, important because it's a difficult one to learn.

None of this seems especially counter-intuitive. So why does NPR frame it as such? Why pretend that parents believe apologizing makes the apologizer feel better when parents, as far as I can tell, don't believe any such thing? Why act as if it's some revelation to point out that kids who feel safe and loved behave better than those who don't?

The answer is obvious enough. A study that tells parents they're more or less doing it right doesn't have the riveting, concern-trolling fascination of a study that says, "Parents, you're doing it wrong -- according to science!" When you proclaim, "Parents, send your kids away from the radio," even in a joking tone, everybody listens more closely. And so, there's a large incentive to frame studies in that way, even if it doesn't make all that much sense to do so.