Apologies Are Far Less Helpful Than Not Offending Someone in the First Place

a black and white photo of a neon sign that reads "Sorry"
Image by Timothy Brown / CC BY

Very few social lives experience no conflict whatsoever. Chances are if you have enough friends are socially well connected enough you’ve run into a situation (or two or three) where someone has done something to offend someone else.

And once a social transgression has been made, it’s up to the parties involved to figure out how they want to make up — or even if they want to move towards a place of forgiveness or understanding.

Because something offensive happen and the other person reacts by deciding they want nothing to do with the offending party.

What Makes a Transgression Harder to Forgive

A recent study looked into what factors into that decision — and what seems to make a person more likely to cut ties than to forgive a friend.

It found the following:

  • The strength of transgression was a significant factor in whether a person was forgiven. Was the offense minor or major? Were there other real world consequences spawned by the social transgression?
  • A personal insult was harder to forgive than an impersonal one or an insult linked to an object. For example, finding out a friend told someone else that you have the worst taste would be harder to forgive than finding out that they told a friend your car was ugly (or some other object that means a lot to you and/or you’re proud of).
  • Apologies didn’t make much of an impact on whether a person was forgiven. Not nearly to the extent the researchers would have expected them to. They found a very modest increase in the likelihood that someone would stay friends with a friend if they apologized, but effect size was very small.
  • Individuals high on dark triad personality characteristics (machiavllianism, narcissism, and psychopathy) were much more likely to seek revenge when they’d been offended than other people.

The researchers were careful to note that this current study focused on friendships and not romantic relationships or small family systems and suggest future research would do well to look into other types of relationships and if similar patterns hold there.

But there were clear indicators that it’s better to not transgress in the first place (and especially not strongly) than it is to apologize well to someone after you’ve messed up.

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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:

Dealing with Difficult Metamours

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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