The psychology of an apology makes for an interesting study.

Over the last fortnight there’s been a fair bit of fuss generated around the visit of the British Prime Minister David Cameron to India, a lot of it to do with the expectation that he would apologise on behalf of his countrymen for the Jallianwalla Bagh Massacre. He made all the appropriate noises, of course, describing the tragedy as “a deeply shameful event”, but stopped short of issuing an actual apology.

There are undoubtedly political reasons surrounding this, but this brought to my mind how difficult many of us find it to apologise for something we have done, “deeply shameful” or otherwise. In almost all forms of inter-personal relationships, whether intimate, familial, social, or professional, apologising has become progressively more difficult to do, even if, one would imagine, expressing contrition for an act of omission or commission, should be the most natural thing to do. This is what makes the psychology of an apology such fascinating study.

The mechanics of an apology are absurdly simple: recognise the mistake, acknowledge culpability for it, experience remorse for causing pain, seek forgiveness and don’t do it again. Unfortunately we are more used to hearing ‘non-apology apologies’ from public figures (“I did it, but I was a victim of a situation”, “I am truly sorry you’re hurt, but this was never my intention” “If anyone was hurt, I apologise for this”) and “conditional apologies” in personal relationships (“I did it only because you/she/he did that”).

Zohar Kampf, an Israeli social scientist, has enumerated at least 14 different ways in which non-apologies are usually framed. But, let’s leave aside public figures for the time being, for the dynamics of their apologies are quite different. They are made not just to specific persons, but to the nameless faceless public at large, and are also seriously influenced by their fiduciary constraints as well as their public relations advisors. Let’s turn our attention to the inter-personal domain, and examine why some people (like Major Sergius Saranoff in Shaw’s Arms and the Man) rarely, if ever, apologise.

Research in the field has thrown up some intriguing findings. Possibly of greatest significance is the “cheap apology” that many of us are prone to make. When we rush to apologise for something we’ve done, however sincere we are, this apology is not received as well as the one that comes a little later, because the offended party may feel that a “considered apology” is more heartfelt than an immediate one that rolls off the tongue too easily.

Also, when one establishes a track record of apologising too readily, the value accorded to such an apology proportionately diminishes. Another interesting finding is that people are more likely to forgive someone who refuses to apologise than one who offers a “coerced apology” (an apology made only after it was demanded).

Obviously, the nature of a relationship determines the value accorded to the apology. One tends to accept an intimate partner’s apology more easily than one from a co-worker even if one’s partner is a “serial transgressor” and the co-worker is a “first-time offender”. And, much to the chagrin of people who buy expensive gifts to mollify their hurt spouses or children, reparative behaviour (giving some “compensation” for causing hurt) is more likely to work in non-intimate relationships (say, employer-employee) than in intimate or emotionally close ones.

Amazingly, many of us, so the research literature says, are not very good at recognising the sincerity of an apology for relatively minor transgressions. We accept even insincere apologies because it makes us feel exalted when we do.

Based on the foregoing, it would be a no-brainer to conclude that, as long as we apologise after understanding the hurt caused to the other, are reasonably sincere about it, don’t wait to be asked to apologise, and don’t look for an expensive gift every time we’ve screwed up, then the transgression will be forgiven and we will feel virtuous and good about ourselves. But here’s the kicker! It may not always work out this way.

A recent peer-reviewed research study from Australia, has shown that some people who refuse to apologise actually experience greater feelings of power, value integrity and self-worth in the short term. Such people see and experience every relationship as a power struggle and feel even more empowered when they don’t apologise because they value the fact that they did not permit any change in the balance of power in the relationship, regardless of the harm they caused. It apparently adds to their feeling of being in control.

So, should we or should we not apologise? I guess that would depend on what you want out of the relationship. If you are a control freak, I guess you might never even dream about it, but if you’re one of those want an empathic, companionable relationship, you wouldn’t think twice about apologising when you have to. Not too readily, of course, but not too reluctantly either. And you would do this because it would be in your own interest to do so, because it makes you a better person, not because you want to mollify the other.

The words mea culpa should only rarely be followed by a question mark, don’t you think?

E-mail: vijay@vijaynagaswami.com

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