Some people are prone to apologize — and even apologize so often that they apologize for the frequency of their apologies. But does being a frequent apologizer make your specific apologies less effective? New research indicates it does not. In fact, people with a high apology baseline are seen as having better communal qualities, which leads to more positive reactions to their apologies.
The research has been published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
“I’ve been studying apologies for 15 years now, and I often get asked whether it’s possible to apologize too much,” said study author Karina Schumann, an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh.
“People want to know whether there are costs and benefits that come with being a high frequency apologizer and whether those costs and benefits differ by the gender of the apologizer. Are people who apologize frequently perceived as incompetent, weak, or annoying? Are they perceived as moral and warm? My collaborators and I wanted to examine these important questions, and also test whether being a chronic (i.e., high baseline) apologizer or infrequent (i.e., low baseline) apologizer affects how any given apology one offers is perceived by the victim.”
“For example, we wondered whether people who receive an apology from a high baseline apologizer devalue that apology because they perceive it as a habitual behavior for the apologizer rather than a genuine signal of remorse. We also wondered how apologies by low baseline apologizers are perceived: are they seen as extremely sincere and powerful because this person rarely apologizes and therefore must really care to make things right in this situation? Perhaps their sincerity is doubted because the apologizer does not appear to be a genuinely apologetic person?”
“Finally, we wanted to test whether people evaluate non-apologies by high and low baseline apologizers differently,” Schumann explained. “For example, when a high baseline apologizer violates expectations by not apologizing, is this more detrimental to conflict resolution than when a low baseline apologizer meets expectations by not apologizing? These are the main questions that motivated this research. ”
The researchers asked 384 participants (recruited via Prolific Academic) to read a short story about a character’s “typical week.” Participants were told the goal of the study was to evaluate whether people interpret stories differently depending on the mode of communication, and that they had been randomly assigned to the reading mode. In reality, all participants were assigned to read the short story.
In the story, the character’s apology baseline was manipulated, with half of the participants reading a story where the high apology baseline character apologizes 12 times and the other half reading a nearly identical story where the low apology baseline character does not apologize. Participants indicated their impressions of the character and then read a continuation of the story where they were personally offended by the character. Half of the participants received an apology from while the other half did not, and participants indicated their hypothetical reactions to the apology/no apology response.
The researchers found that the character who frequently apologized was perceived to have more communal qualities, such as honesty and warmth, compared to the character who never apologized. The character who frequently apologized was also perceived has having fewer agentic qualities, such as assertiveness and confidence.
The study did not find a direct effect of apology baselines on victims’ response. “Contrary to our expectations, people did not devalue apologies from high baseline apologizers. That is, people who received an apology from someone who apologizes very frequently did not respond differently to that apology than when they received an apology from someone who apologizes very infrequently,” Schumann said.
However, there were indirect effects of being a high baseline apologizer on reactions to a specific apology via communal qualities. In other words, frequent apologizers were viewed as more communal, and heightened communal qualities were associated with feelings of being cared for, satisfaction with the apology, and forgiveness.
In a subsequent study, the researchers recruited 300 participants in romantic relationships and assessed their partner’s apology baseline. Participants completed a survey regarding their partner’s apology frequency (e.g. “Apologizing is common behavior for my partner”) and typical quality (e.g. “When my partner apologizes, their apologies are typically very sincere”). They also rated their partner on communal and agentic qualities.
The participants then read a hypothetical scenario in which they were offended by their romantic partner. “The offense occurs when the participant overhears their romantic partner ridiculing their personal beliefs about a sensitive issue in front of a group of friends,” the researchers explained. Participants were randomly assigned to receive either a (hypothetical) non-apology, a low-quality apology, or a high-quality apology. Participants then indicated their reactions to their partner’s apology.
Interestingly, there was no relationship found between apology baseline and typical quality, indicating that frequent apologizers are not necessarily good apologizers. In line with their previous study, Schumann and her colleagues found that more frequent apologizers tended to be perceived as having more communal qualities and fewer agentic qualities. But they found that typical apology quality was an important moderator of these associations.
“The most central finding of our research was that people who apologize very frequently are perceived as more warm and moral than those who apologize infrequently. They are also perceived as slightly less assertive and powerful,” Schumann told PsyPost.
“However, we found this was only the case when people were considered low quality apologizers. That is, it was the specific combination of frequent poor apologies that made people seem unassertive and powerless, whereas frequent high-quality apologies do not diminish perceptions of assertiveness and power and instead are only associated with greater perceptions of warmth and morality.”
“So for those of you who frequently apologize, be sure to pay special attention to the quality of the apologies you’re offering,” Schumann said. “Notably, these effects did not differ by the gender of the apologizer — men and women were perceived similarly.”
The researchers also looked at whether a person’s tendency to apologize affected how their partner responded to different types of apologies (no apology, low-quality apology, or high-quality apology). However, they did not find any significant differences in how the partner responded based on their apology baseline.
“People evaluated non-apologies the same, regardless of whether the transgressors was a high or low baseline apologizer,” Schumann told PsyPost. “In other words, they didn’t respond more harshly when they didn’t receive an apology from a high frequently apologizer (compared to when they didn’t receive an apology from a low frequency apologizer).”
“All in all, our findings suggest that being a high baseline apologizer comes with greater benefits than costs, especially if you are offering high quality apologies.”
As far as the study’s caveats, Schumann noted that “we did not test our research questions with real apologies happening in that very moment. We also only tested our questions with high and low baseline apologizers. We didn’t test whether people who are moderate-frequency apologizers are judged differently than people who apologizers very frequently. So a fruitful direction for future research is to examine whether a high apology baseline yields benefits over and above a more moderate apology baseline.”
The study, “The Social Consequences of Frequent Versus Infrequent Apologizing“, was authored by Karina Schumann, Emily G. Ritchie, and Amanda Forest.