No apology tour for conservatives: Study shows liberals more likely to say I’m sorry

New research published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science has found a person’s political orientation is related to their propensity to apologize.

In the study, a survey of 2,130 individuals from Australia, Chile, China, Hong Kong, India, Japan, Peru, Russia, and the United States found that respondents who were more politically conservative also tended to express more reluctance to apologize. Conservative respondents also reported being less influenced by apologies than their more liberal counterparts.

In a follow-up experiment, the researchers had 38 Indian individuals and 27 Americans imagine they had committed a transgression against a neighbor by not watering the neighbor’s plants as frequently as promised. The participants were asked to write down what they would say to the neighbor. The researchers found that more conservative individuals were less apologetic in their open-ended responses.

PsyPost interviewed the study’s corresponding author, Matthew J. Hornsey of the University of Queensland, Brisbane. Read his responses below:

PsyPost: Why were you interested in this topic?

Hornsey: I’ve had a long-held interest in apologies, but more from the receiver’s point of view: when and why do apologies promote forgiveness? Then I became interested in a question that’s less examined but probably more important: what leads people to apologize in the first place? And my thinking on that had been influenced by casual observation of politics – it just seemed that people on the left-side of politics would issue public apologies more than conservatives. It became particularly obvious during the last election campaign in the US, when Hillary Clinton apologized for 5 different things in 8 months, at the same time as Trump was boasting that he never apologized. More than that, there was an emerging trend for conservatives to embrace a “no apologies” attitude as a source of pride. So my study was designed to test whether this is something that played out in ordinary people’s lives too.

What should the average person take away from your study?

The headline finding is that conservatives are less likely to apologize than liberals. They’re also less influenced by apologies when deciding whether to forgive someone. This is something that we see all around the world; not just America.

Are there any major caveats? What questions still need to be addressed?

Because there’s a temptation to simplify and magnify differences between liberals and conservatives, we want to put on the record that our findings do not show that conservatives are anti-apology. The majority of our participants showed a willingness to apologize, regardless of political orientation. People like to apologize when they’ve done something wrong. But the data showed that this tendency to apologize was less strong for participants who were more politically conservative.

In terms of questions that still need to addressed: I think more work could be done on explaining why conservatives are relatively unwilling to apologize. The mechanism we show in the paper is that conservatives are more hierarchical than liberals; they’re more likely to think power differences are normal, natural and desirable. There are a number of theories of apology that speak of it as a way of reducing power differences between transgressor and victim, and that provided the theoretical basis to make the case that conservatives’ comfort with dominance is why they’re less likely to apologize. But personally I think there’s more to the story than that. I’d like to do more research examining whether conservatives attach a different meaning to apologies than liberals: perhaps they ae more likely to see an apology as an act of weakness than liberals. I also wonder if conservatives have a higher threshold for what they see to be offensive; so the same act might be seen as warranting an apology among liberals but not among conservatives.

The study, “Conservatives Are More Reluctant to Give and Receive Apologies Than Liberals“, was also co-authored by Karina Schumann, Paul G. Bain, Sheyla Blumen, Sylvia X. Chen, A´ngel Gomez, Roberto Gonza´lez, Yanjun Guan, Emiko Kashima, Nadezhda Lebedeva, and Michael J. A. Wohl.