Sorry Not Sorry, Forced Apologies Aren’t Helpful and Aren’t Fooling Anyone

a wall that has "sorry about your wall" and a smiley face graffitied onto it
Image by Tim Green / CC BY

I do so hate a fauxpology (i.e., fake apology). You know exactly what I’m talking about. When someone’s saying the words, “I”m sorry,” but you can tell they don’t really mean it. Either by tone of voice or stilted word use.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” with an eye roll.

Or something equally unimpressive like, “I’m sorry you feel that way.”  Language that demonstrates a lack of ownership for their actions.

Sometimes fake apologies can even be a sarcastic form of relational passive-aggression. Ugh. It’s the worst.

All else being equal, I want genuine apologies or none at all. And I can spot a fake one from a mile away.

And it would appear that research shows that I’m not the only one. Apparently even small children don’t fall for a fauxpology.

Even Small Children Can Tell the Difference Between a Genuine Apology and a Forced One

I recently stumbled across an interesting new study that tested whether children can differentiate between genuine, voluntary apologies and ones that were given against a child’s will, coerced by adults.

Participants in the study ranged from 4 to 9 years old. This study looked at three different conditions:

  • Completely unprompted apologies
  • Apologies that were prompted by adults but given willingly
  • Apologies a child was forced to give

The researchers found that it didn’t seem to matter all that much whether the child had to be prompted to give an apology, provided they did so willingly.

But in the final coercive scenario, the children indicated that the recipient of such an apology would feel quite a great deal worse. This effect was particularly marked in the study’s older children (7-9) as opposed to the younger ones (4-7).

Since the researchers didn’t test a no-apology scenario, it’s difficult to ascertain how the forced apology would stack up against a scenario in which there was no apology at all.

But it’s easy to see that even children can distinguish between an apology that involves genuine remorse and one that’s given for perfunctory reasons or for simple reputation repair.

While this study focused on children, it’s not a ridiculous idea to think it might have some merit when looking at adult dynamics, especially as the effect was more pronounced in the group of older children.  I would be willing to bet that the effect continues and becomes more pronounced with age, not less.

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This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.

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Books by Page Turner:

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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