Motivation and emotion/Book/2021/Sorry

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What is feeling sorry, what causes it, and what are its consequences?

Overview[edit | edit source]

What does saying sorry mean?

"The words confirm, that’s what they do, they confirm. It’s like a whole package, or baking a cake. The three work together to make a cake because all the ingredients are there but the cake turns out just fine with flour and eggs because they’re the most important ingredients. Words can be empty; they can be an apology, but aren't an apology. I thought I needed to hear the words, now I think I needed to see his sorrow and for him to have sorrow, to experience it for the right reasons; for him to truly understand the why of why I was hurt and hurting, and that he joined with me in my hurt, hurting for the same reasons, the loss, for what we have both lost, our marriage, our togetherness, a future as one."

Excerpt from participant two from the study by Slocum et al. (2011, p. 86) — 'An emerging theory of an apology'

Figure 1. Skywriting of the word "Sorry" above the Sydney Harbour Bridge in the year 2008

How do you feel when you say sorry? Is it a sentiment that rolls right off your tongue or does it feel like you have to force the words? Have you ever felt like you were saying sorry for no reason?

Humans in interpersonal relationships hurt each other, there is no way to escape that (Schumann, 2018). Both the transgressor and the victim can experience profound psychological, physiological, and relational impacts after a transgression has been committed (Schumann, 2018). Whether these impacts are positive or negative depends upon the steps that are taken by the transgressor. An effective apology is cathartic for a victim; it can improve their mental well-being, validate their feelings and allow them to experience empathy towards a transgressor, as well a greater willingness to forgive (Boyd, 2011; Schumann, 2018).

This book chapter first addresses the theoretical roots of being sorry. It will also address what feeling sorry means and the different ways feeling sorry can be expressed. This chapter addresses what causes someone to feel sorry in relation to social rejections and Kevin Rudd's National apology (see Figure 1). Finally, this chapter addresses the positive and negative consequences of feeling sorry.

Focus questions:

  • What is feeling sorry?
  • What causes a person to feel sorry?
  • What are the consequences of feeling sorry?

Theory behind being sorry[edit | edit source]

Being sorry relies on a complex interplay of constructs. There are many inconsistencies with the definition of an apology among researchers, psychologists, psychiatrists and philosophers (Slocum et al., 2011). There is a lack of a comprehensive theory of apology, however, the research by Slocum et al. (2011) and Boyd (2011) both provide a theoretical framework for what an appropriate and effective apology requires.

Emerging theory of apology[edit | edit source]

A study by Slocum et al. (2011) attempted to find an emerging theory of apology. The researchers utilised a hermeneutic phenomenological approach which focuses on how lay people interpret, experience, and conceptualise a construct, rather than deriving theory solely from scholarly debate (Slocum et al., 2011). The study had a small sample size of Australian adults who had been in an intimate relationship with someone else for at least two years (Slocum et al., 2011). A good methodology was used; the participants were recruited through community recruits and were asked to participate in a semi-structured interview where they described a "wrong" that their partner had committed against them and how an apology made them feel (Slocum et al., 2011). Participant 17 stated that "A deep, deep sorry takes lots of words. It’s not just ‘I’m sorry’. Its lots of words" (Slocum et al., 2011, p. 85). The results found that in order for an apology to be appropriate, it had to contain a combination of affect, affirmation, and action (Slocum et al., 2011). Table 1 shows how these three components further branch into two categories that sit on a focus continuum.

Table 1. The three components of an apology according to Slocum et al. (2011)

Components Affirmation Affect Action
Self–other focused Acknowledgment Remorse Reparation
Self–focused Admission Regret Restitution

Overall, Slocum et al. (2011) were able to identify a theory of apology, wherein an apology must constitute of one or more of the aforementioned components. Further studies would need to be conducted in order to ground the theory proposed by Slocum et al. (2011). Although this research was conducted with one group, most of the components overlap with other theoretical research, such as Boyd's effective apology model.

Quiz 1

Choose the correct answer and click "Submit":

Remorse is a self-focused category.


Boyd's effective apology model[edit | edit source]

Case Study

Imagine you are walking towards the exit of a café after purchasing a coffee. A woman walks by you and accidentally bumps into your hand causing the coffee to fall to the floor. Although the woman is aware of what has happened, she offers no apology and proceeds to go and buy her coffee. You will probably never see this woman again and yet you are upset about the absence of an apology. Why is that?

A study by Chaudhry and Loewenstein (2019) stated that people place high value on simple communications such as apologies. For example, negative customer reviews are more likely to be overturned by an effective apology, rather than by small monetary incentives (Chaudhry & Loewenstein, 2019). The study by Chaudhry and Loewenstein (2019) found that transgressors overestimate the costs and underestimate the benefits of apologising.

Research by Boyd (2011) described what he believed to be the seven sequential components of an effective apology. According to Boyd (2011), if a transgressor performs the adaptive strategies of the seven components — explanation, empathy, timeliness, internal attribution, guilt, compensation, and change, they will be able to produce an effective apology that is more likely to lead to forgiveness. Table 2 illustrates the components of Boyd's model and provides a brief overview of the adaptive and maladaptive strategies. For a more in-depth look into each component, see this book chapter on an effective apology.

Table 2. An overview of Boyd's seven components of apology

Components Adaptive versus maladaptive strategies Overview of the strategies
Revelation Explanation versus evasion (diminution or disassociation)
  • Explanation: the transgressor announces the transgression and provides a truthful explanation of why it occurred (Boyd, 2011).
  • Evasion: in a self-serving fashion the transgressor attempts to deflect the transgression by either diminishing it — providing excuses that dilute the egregiousness of the act, or, by disassociating from it — providing an empty apology without accepting any blame or responsibility (Hill & Boyd, 2013).
Recognition Empathy versus estrangement
  • Empathy: Before any forgiveness can come to the transgressor for their transgression, they must first show obvious empathy and compassion to whoever was negatively impacted by the act (Boyd, 2011).
  • Estrangement: the transgressor does not understand how the impacted party feels after a transgression has occurred (Boyd, 2011).
Responsiveness Timeliness versus Tardiness
  • Timeliness: the transgressor addresses the victim in a timely manner after a transgression, and stops the victim from forming negative attributes towards the transgressor (Boyd, 2011).
  • Tardiness: the transgressor takes too long to apologise, and the victim forms negative and possibly untrue opinions about the transgressor (Boyd, 2011).
Responsibility Internal versus external attribution (dispersion or displacement)
  • Internal attribution: the transgressor owns up to the transgression and sees themselves as the sole cause of the act, without pinning the blame on anything or anyone else (Boyd, 2011).
  • External attribution: the transgressor shifts the blame from themselves by either dispersing it — blaming multiple parties for the transgression, or, by displacing it — apologising for a transgression of a lesser magnitude, making it more forgivable (Boyd, 2011).
Remorse Guilt versus guile
  • Guilt: the transgressor offers an apology that contains humility, and shame, they not only regret the transgression but also subject themselves to a certain level of anguish (Boyd, 2011).
  • Guile: the transgressor conceals any guilt, so as to not be blamed for the transgression (Boyd, 2011).
Restitution Compensation versus abrogation
  • Compensation: the transgressor performs an action that is costly to themselves and restorative towards the victim. The action can be reputational or monetary (Boyd, 2011).
  • Abrogation: the transgressor shows no sign of making amends for the transgression they have caused and likely experiences low personal responsibility for the transgression (Boyd, 2011).
Reform Change versus complacency
  • Change: the transgressor not only promises to never commit the transgression again, but also takes vital and proactive steps to ensure they follow through with their promise (Boyd, 2011).
  • Complacency: on the surface, the transgressor promises to never commit the transgression again, however, they soon revert to their old behaviours and do not believe they were ever in the wrong (Boyd, 2011).

Quiz 2

Choose the correct answer and click "Submit":

If a transgressor tries to blame others for their transgression, what strategy are they implementing?


What is feeling sorry?[edit | edit source]

Feeling sorry is an integral part of being a social being (Kotani, 2002). Nevertheless, "sorry" is a loaded word; it can be healing, comforting, and gratifying, yet it can also be misinterpreted, insincere, and manipulative. Schumann (2018) proposed that there were three main barriers to apologising and feeling sorry — low concern for the victim, looming threat to the transgressor’s self-image, and perceived apology ineffectiveness.

Apologies are not always straightforward; a study by Murphy (2019) examined how saying "I'm sorry" would be interpreted by recipients when it was followed by a certain utterance. The study had a small sample size, but a good methodology was used; in an experimental setting, participants had to listen to a speaker say various phrases, and then rate these phrases on how apologetic they seemed (Murphy, 2019). Table 3 displays four out of the 16 phrases that were included the study; all 16 phrases were grouped into four kinds of utterances — a proper apology, an expression of sympathy, a non-apology, and a verbal formula mismatch (Murphy, 2019). Table 3. also goes on to explain the four utterances.

Table 3. Four different ways of saying "I'm sorry"

Phrase Type of utterance Explanation of the utterance
I'm sorry I upset you Proper apology A tangible and sincere apology that seeks to repair interpersonal relations (Murphy 2019).
I'm sorry to hear that Expression of sympathy Can be seen as proper way of apologising but it in certain contexts it can be manipulative (Murphy, 2019).
I'm sorry you feel that way Non-apology An apology that is inherently evasive by blurring or omitting the action or the speaker (Murphy, 2019).
I'm sorry you are such an arsehole Verbal formula mismatch Setting up a polite expectation followed by an impolite attack (Murphy, 2019).

The study by Murphy (2019) found that proper apologies achieved the highest rating score on how apologetic they came across with "I'm sorry I upset you" scoring 94.9% overall. Some expressions of sympathy scored highly, however, phrases such as "I'm sorry to hear that" only scored 46.1% (Murphy, 2019). Participants did not feel as though "I'm sorry to hear that" was a very apologetic expression and their comments were summarised with the following, "It's the sort of thing someone says when they've been caught out and don't want to say sorry properly" (Murphy, 2019, p. 27). The non-apologies and the verbal formula mismatch phrases both scored very low, with "I'm sorry you feel that way" scoring the lowest out of all the phrases with 28.2% (Murphy, 2019). The study by Murphy (2019) showcased that there are many different ways to feel sorry, however, not all of them are seen as apologetic. A transgressor can say sorry with sincerity, whilst feeling remorse and guilt (Boyd, 2011; Slocum et al., 2011). Conversely, a transgressor can say sorry in a manipulative and evasive manner and can even set up apologies that attack the person they are supposedly apologising to. The next portion of this book chapter will focus on what causes a person to feel sorry.

What causes a person to feel sorry?[edit | edit source]

A person can feel sorry due to a plethora of reasons. Slocum et al. (2011) found that an apology can be led by self-focused reasons or by reasons that acknowledge both the self and the other. The reason why a person feels sorry can impact the way in which they express their apology and where their focus lies. This portion of the chapter will address how an apology functions in social rejections and in the public arena.

Social rejection[edit | edit source]

Figure 2. A female lion rejecting a male lion. Would it be possible for humans to carry out rejection in the same way?

Social rejection can be a painful experience for the recipient getting rejected, and for the person doing the rejecting (Freedman et al., 2017). Figure 2 illustrates how rejection is handled in the animal kingdom. Humans, on the other hand usually need to reject other humans with a very different approach depending on the circumstance. Instances where women reject men's romantic advances, often call for a calculated apology from the woman — even if she does not believe it is necessary — in order to avoid unfavourable or aggressive behaviour from the recipient (Stratmoen et al., 2019). There is some psychological literature that explains that "saying sorry" does not always mitigate the painful aspect of rejection for any party (Freedman et al., 2017).

Freedman et al. (2017) wanted to investigate if an apology given by a rejecter is harmful or helpful in social rejections. Freedman et al. (2017) conducted three sets of studies; a large sample size was used, and a good methodology was implemented by using replications and meta-analyses throughout the studies. Overall, the research found that apologising after rejecting someone can backfire; social norms dictate that once a recipient receives an apology, they should express forgiveness, however, sometimes recipients do not actually feel the forgiveness they express (Freedman et al., 2017). It is difficult to reject someone, therefore, a rejecter often feels obligated to lessen the emotional hurt they are causing someone by leading with an apology (Freedman et al., 2017). This kind of research shows that the reasons people feel sorry are complicated and an apology does not always lead to forgiveness and reparation.

Apology to the Stolen Generations[edit | edit source]

Margaret Tucker's experience

We had our arms round our mother, and refused to let go. She still had her apron on, and must have run the whole one and a half miles. She arrived just in time, due to the kindness of Mrs Hill. As we hung onto our mother she said fiercely, 'They are my children and they are not going away with you.'

The policeman, who no doubt was doing his duty, patted his handcuffs, which were in a leather case on his belt, and which May and I thought was a revolver.

'Mrs Clements,' he said, 'I'll have to use this if you do not let us take these children now.'

Thinking that policeman would shoot Mother, because she was trying to stop him, we screamed, 'We'll go with him Mum, we'll go.' I cannot forget any detail of that moment, it stands out as though it were yesterday.

This excerpt was written by an Aboriginal woman named Margaret Tucker in her 1977 autobiography 'If Everyone Cared' (Barta, 2008). Forcibly removing mixed race children was a government policy in Australia for a majority of the 20th century (Barta, 2008). In 2008, former Prime Minister — Kevin Rudd delivered a National apology to Australia’s Indigenous peoples and to the Stolen Generations (Barta, 2008). Public apologies such as Rudd's are made in order to "define victims and perpetrators, and demarcate lines of acceptable conduct; and these in turn send signals about future behaviour ... and future public policy" (Short, 2012, p. 296). Apologies are almost magical because they can in no way undo what has been done, and yet, the relief they can sometimes offer can repair relationships that were thought to be unrepairable (Short, 2012). However, even though an apology was offered by the Commonwealth, many Australian's could not look past the years of genocide and accept a hollow gesture on its own (Short, 2012). This is where the two final steps of Boyd's model come in, by offering reform and restitution in the form of compensation, a hollow apology can transform into a meaningful one.

What are the consequences of feeling sorry?[edit | edit source]

There can be many consequences when feeling sorry. These consequences can be positive and promote good overall health (Friedberg et al., 2007; Schumann, 2012), and they can be negative and promote unhealthy coping mechanisms. Both positive and negative consequences can be long-lasting across the human lifespan.

Positive consequences[edit | edit source]

Example You may not think it, but previous literature shows that forgiveness may have profound physiological effects. Forgiveness may lead to lower blood pressure levels and that it may aid in cardiovascular recovery from stress and anger (Friedberg et al., 2007). Possessing good health in these physiological elements can be vital to overall healthy human functioning.

In 1970, Erich Segal wrote a novel called 'Love Story' that featured the now infamous quote “love means never having to say you’re sorry” (Schumann, 2012). This quote has been disputed in psychological literature, with scholars stating that saying sorry in a relationships offers immense psychological benefits to the recipient (Schumann, 2012). Ridding oneself of interpersonal anger and forgiving a transgressor can promote better mental and physical health as well as relationship well-being (Schumann, 2012). Saying sorry and forgiving go hand in-hand and if both are present, positive consequences can arise.

Negative consequences[edit | edit source]

From as young as the age of four, a person can start to recognise what an apology aims to do (Smith et al., 2018). Boyd (2011) has shown that an apology is made in order to provide relief for the victim by conveying the remorse of the transgressor. A study by Smith et al. (2018) aimed to find out if children can tell when an apology given by another child is remorseful, and when it is coerced by an adult. The study found that children aged four to nine years saw willingly made apologies as a good way to show remorse and heal a victim's feelings (Smith et al., 2018). Conversely, children could tell when an apology was not sincere and saw unwilling or coerced apologies as disingenuous and painted the transgressor in a bad light (Smith et al., 2018). This study shed light on the fact that forcing a child to apologise does not promote sincere, remorseful, or empathetic apologies. Further research would need to be conducted to see if adults who were coerced to apologise for their transgressions' when they were children, do or do not offer sincere apologies as adults. Another negative consequence of feeling sorry, as outlined in the study by Freedman et al. (2017), is when a recipient feels as though they have to accept an apology. An offered apology with false forgiveness in return is one-sided and cannot function effectively as an apology.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

To say the word "sorry" is complex is an understatement. In most cases a transgressor feels sorry because they have taken an action that has hurt another party. An apology can be made that holds the victim front of mind by focusing on acknowledgment, remorse and, reparation (Slocum et al., 2011). Nevertheless, an apology can also have selfish underpinnings that focus on diminution, disassociation, dispersion, and displacement (Boyd, 2011; Hill & Boyd, 2013). Murphy (2019) found that the way in which a person feels sorry can have significant implications on how an apology is delivered to another party. What causes a person to feel sorry is varied. In social rejections an apology is made in order to try and repair the damaging nature of a rejection, but this kind of apology can be futile if the recipient does not truly forgive (Freedman et al., 2017). A public apology such as Kevin Rudd's was made in order to apologise for Australia's egregious past, but an apology without compensation or reform does not bode well with affected parties (Boyd, 2011; Hill & Boyd, 2013). Positive outcomes for the mind and body can come from feeling sorry and accepting apologies. However, coerced, or fake apologies should be avoided and saying sorry just to put another person in the position to forgive should also be avoided. Taken altogether, this book chapter provides a glimpse into the theories, the feelings, the causes, and the consequences of saying "I'm sorry".

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Barta, T. (2008). Sorry, and not sorry, in Australia: how the apology to the stolen generations buried a history of genocide. Journal Of Genocide Research, 10(2), 201–214.

Boyd, D. (2011). Art and artifice in public apologies. Journal Of Business Ethics, 104(3), 299-309.

Chaudhry, S., & Loewenstein, G. (2019). Thanking, apologizing, bragging, and blaming: responsibility exchange theory and the currency of communication. Psychological Review, 126(3), 313–344.

Freedman, G., Burgoon, E., Ferrell, J., Pennebaker, J., & Beer, J. (2017). When saying sorry may not help: the impact of apologies on social rejections. Frontiers In Psychology, 8(1375), 1–11.

Friedberg, J., Suchday, S., & Shelov, D. (2007). The impact of forgiveness on cardiovascular reactivity and recovery. International Journal Of Psychophysiology, 65(2), 87–94.

Hill, K., & Boyd, D. (2013). The Components of a successful CEO Apology. Journal Of Business Case Studies, 9(2), 89–96.

Kotani, M. (2002). Expressing gratitude and indebtedness: Japanese speakers' use of "I'm Sorry" in English conversation. Research On Language & Social Interaction, 35(1), 39–72.

Murphy, J. (2019). I'm sorry you are such an arsehole: (non-)canonical apologies and their implications for (im)politeness. Journal Of Pragmatics, 142, 223–232.

Schumann, K. (2012). Does love mean never having to say you’re sorry? Associations between relationship satisfaction, perceived apology sincerity, and forgiveness. Journal Of Social And Personal Relationships, 29(7), 997–1010.

Schumann, K. (2018). The Psychology of offering an apology: understanding the barriers to apologizing and how to overcome them. Current Directions In Psychological Science, 27(2), 74–78.

Short, D. (2012). When sorry isn’t good enough: official remembrance and reconciliation in Australia. Memory Studies, 5(3), 293–304.

Slocum, D., Allan, A., & Allan, M. (2011). An emerging theory of apology. Australian Journal Of Psychology, 63(2), 83–92.

Smith, C., Anderson, D., & Straussberger, A. (2018). Say you're sorry: children distinguish between willingly given and coerced expressions of remorse. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 64(2), 275–308.

Stratmoen, E., Rivera, E., & Saucier, D. (2019). “Sorry, I already have a boyfriend”: masculine honor beliefs and perceptions of women’s use of deceptive rejection behaviors to avert unwanted romantic advances. Journal Of Social And Personal Relationships, 37(2), 467–490.

External links[edit | edit source]