Why Do Some People Struggle To Apologize? And Why Do Others Apologize Excessively?

Psychologist Joshua Guilfoyle distinguishes an apologetic person from an unapologetic one.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | June 22, 2022

A new study appearing in the Journal of Experimental Psychology suggests that how much you apologize in a given situation is a result of how powerful you feel in that social context.

I recently spoke to lead author Joshua Guilfoyle to learn more about this finding. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to investigate the topic of social power and apology?

My colleagues and I are interested in understanding what motivates victims of transgressions to express behaviors such as offering forgiveness and seeking revenge or harboring a grudge.

We were also interested in what motivates offenders of transgressions to accept responsibility and apologize or skirt responsibility, deflect blame, diminish, deny, or excuse what they did – something we refer to as non-apology.

A few years ago, we published a paper exploring how social power affects victims' forgiveness.

In recent years, we have seen a spate of high-profile, high-power individuals (e.g., celebrities, politicians, executives) commit wrongdoings and be particularly resistant to apologizing, often offering pseudo- or non-apologies.

We thought social power likely had something to do with it.

How did you study it and what did you find?

We studied it in a few different ways. First, we established a basic association between how generally powerful or powerless individuals feel and their proclivity to apologize (or not) for their wrongdoings.

We found those who generally feel powerful are less apologetic and more non-apologetic, and vice versa.

However, we were unsure if this meant those with more power apologize less or if apologizing less makes you feel powerful.

We had participants recall a time they committed a transgression or imagine themselves committing a transgression.

In both situations, participants randomly assigned to the high-power condition reported fewer apologies and more non-apology than those with low-power, as measured with an apology questionnaire.

Additionally, we measured and manipulated participants' self-other focus and found the effects of social power on apology and non-apology operates through a self-other focus. That is, those with high power take a self-focus, which in turn, makes them less apologetic and more non-apologetic. Those with low power are more other-focused and consequently more apologetic and less non-apologetic.

Can you briefly describe what "high power transgressors" are and what behaviors they are more likely to engage in?

A host of research has found that high-power individuals, those with power or control over the outcomes of others or are in a position to evaluate them, are less inhibited and more likely to indulge in behaviors that align with their desires or goals.

Previous research has found interpersonally, high-power individuals are less likely to pay attention to others, more likely to stereotype or objectify others, and have less empathy.

High-powered transgressors are those with high power who commit an interpersonal transgression against another person. Thus, this can range from unintentional slights to severe transgressions such as infidelity or assault.

Could you describe the power approach theory and how it relates to the behavioral approach system and the behavioral inhibition system?

Power approach theory argues that having power activates something called the Behavior Approach System. It's the psychological system responsible for goal-directed behavior.

When someone is goal-directed, they're focused on their own goals, desires, and wants. This can motivate individuals to engage in less moral behaviors if it means satisfying their goals.

Behavioral Inhibition System: When people are powerless, they're often constrained by others, which activates the Behavioral Inhibition System. It's the psychological system responsible for keeping track of threats, conflict, uncertainty, and punishment.

When someone has low power and is reliant on others, particularly ones that can inflict threats, conflict, uncertainty, or punishment on them, they focus on others – others' goals, desires, and wants. This can motivate individuals to engage in behaviors that align with others' goals.

In sum, having high- and low-power is associated with having a self- or other-focus, respectively.

What are the practical takeaways from your research?

I think there are several takeaways from this research.

One is that not only are those in high-power positions more likely to engage in transgressive behaviors, but our research shows they're also less likely to apologize and more likely to engage in non-apology.

This has practical concerns for any hierarchical environment, such as business, organizations, military, academia, and government, where individuals are placed in positions of power over others and can control their outcomes.

To combat this phenomenon, having high-power individuals engage in perspective-taking and take an other-focus can interrupt or reverse this effect.

Therefore, one practical takeaway is that when high-power individuals harm another person, have them engage in a perspective-taking exercise and focus on their victim's experience.

In turn, this will make them less likely to abstain from responsibility, make excuses and more likely they'll feel genuinely apologetic.

Is it possible for high power transgressors to overcome their cognitive disposition and vice versa?

Our research seems to suggest that it is. We found that high-power transgressors who take an other-focus through a perspective-taking exercise are the most apologetic, the opposite of the main effect that we found. This is likely due to powerful individuals being goal-oriented.

When goals concern others, such as taking an other-focus, powerful people will be more likely to act them out.

You mention that the propensity to apologize is characterized by the degree of social power that is also tightly related to the self-other-focus. Can you expand on that?

Social power has a direct effect on how self-other-focused one is. That is, how much they are focused on themselves or focused on others.

Apologizing is difficult as it means accepting responsibility, acknowledging harm, and asking for forgiveness, and it may include offering remedy or restitution. As a result, many people would rather not apologize to avoid those unpleasantries.

As social power makes individuals more self-focused on their own goals (i.e., not apologizing) and gives them license to do so, it makes them less willing to offer an apology and more willing to engage in non-apology.

What personality traits are related to non-apologetic versus apologetic behaviors?

Our research demonstrates that feeling dispositionally powerful is associated with a tendency to be less apologetic.

Relatedly, we've published other research that demonstrates narcissism negatively affects apology, such that those high in trait narcissism are also less apologetic and more non-apologetic.

This is unsurprising as narcissism is characterized by a sense of superiority and power over others.

Do you have plans for follow-up research? Where would you like to see this form of research go in the future?

We have already begun to follow up on this research by exploring the moderating role of cultural context.

Given that cultures can tilt more self- vs other-focused (i.e., individualist vs. collectivist cultures), we explored these effects in Japan, a collectivistic culture that places more importance on being other-focused.

Consistent with the results in this paper, we found high-powered transgressors in Japan were more apologetic than those with low-power and their high-powered Canadian counterparts.

We believe this is due to their proclivity to be more other-focused. This research was done with our collaborators at Kobe University and the University of Tokyo, which is currently being written up for publication.