What is an apology?

This is a repost of an article I wrote in 2014.

There are countless cases in the news where a public figure does something wrong, and we all collectively ask, “Why don’t they just apologize?” or “Why don’t they apologize the right way?”  In the mean time I’ve often thought, “Why does anyone apologize ever?  What is an apology aside from a collection of emotions with no rational analogue?”

An apology is a sort of script.  Alice wrongs Bob.  Bob demands an apology from Alice.  Alice apologizes.  Bob forgives Alice.


Alice refuses to apologize.  Bob is angered and seeks other means to punish Alice.  He could deny her trust, deny her social status, or even punish through legal means.

But what’s in it for Alice?  What’s in it for Bob?  As far as Alice is concerned, the outcome of apologizing is clearly better than that of refusing to apologize.  As far as Bob is concerned, punishment may provide either a psychological or game-theoretic value–why should any of that change just because Alice arranges some words in a particular way?

We’ve all been in Alice’s place at one time or another, so we intuitively know the answer.  Apologizing is humbling, and feels bad.  Refusing to apologize feels empowering.  This is backed up by psychological research (and reading the intro to that paper helped frame some of the thoughts in this post).  Thus, Alice is weighing the psychological benefit of refusing to apologize against the potential for reconciliation upon apologizing.  And if Alice feels bad about apologizing, this serves some of Bob’s psychological and game-theoretic needs, in place of punishment.

It’s crucial to the script that Alice can actually prove that she feels bad when she apologizes.  Anyone can just say that they feel bad.  And yet, we have the phenomenon of the “non-pology”.  A non-pology is when someone tries to apologize, but since they don’t actually feel bad about their wrong-doing, it comes across as insincere.  It seems that people are not very good at mimicking sincerity when it comes to apologies.  Thus when people sound sincere, this often suffices as proof.

Apologies start to make more rational sense now.  However, they only make rational sense because we’re living in an irrational psychological landscape.  In particular, we need that:

1. Apologizing feels bad.  Refusing to apologize feels good.

2. People are bad at mimicking sincere apologies.

3. People are good at detecting insincere apologies.

This psychological landscape needs an evolutionary explanation–although not necessarily an adaptive explanation.  I will not offer any specific hypothesis, although I will compare it to the phenomenon of the Duchenne smile.  People have two kinds of smiles, the kind they make spontaneously, and the kind they make voluntarily.  We are able to spot the spontaneous smile, called the Duchenne smile, and it appears to us as the “truer” smile.  And yet, despite the advantages a Duchenne smile, most people are unable to make one at will, unable to mimic sincerity.  Why did this evolve?

In any case, thinking this through has given me a better understanding of why people apologize, and why they don’t apologize.  An apology is a way of communicating psychic pain, one that we are naturally bad at faking.


  1. snuffcurry says

    Well, perhaps, but “nonpologies” are a species of public apology, and the metrics for gauging the success of a public apology go beyond Bob’s individual needs and agency. “I’m sorry for offending anyone,” for example, is perfectly sincere in a literal way. Most people are sorry when they have inadvertently hurt someone else, but the feeling of sorrow is directed inward and is not particularly empathetic. The speaker is sorry that they’re experiencing the discomfort of feeling compelled by internal and external forces to respond to a complaint; the regret is about the reaction to the speaker, not about what the speaker first said or did to elicit the reaction. It’s not sincerity that’s being judged as deficient. A “nonpology” is often intellectually lazy, incurious, lacking in understanding, flabby, clichéd, and shallow. Rather than addressing the root of the error, the insufficient apology is content to skim the surface and is palpably uninterested in considering the substance of the criticism, instead responding to its tone of voice.

    Like the smile that does not express spontaneous joy, mirth, or relief, the “nonpology” is communicating something very directly. What is being communicated, however, is often unpalatable or displeasing to the recipient, who in turn does not want to see what it is they are seeing or hear what is being said, and thus mistakenly rejects the uncomfortable thing as inadequate.

  2. snuffcurry says

    A “nonpology” doubles down on the point of contention by pointedly failing to address it, thereby reinforcing what was already said and done. There is no mutual understanding; there is a rejection of further dialogue in the “nonpology” because it refuses even to consider an alternating. It’s pretty obvious why that might enrage the recipient(s), but the motivations and purpose of the thing, as a social convention, are not particularly mysterious.

  3. says

    If I follow your argument, the problem with a nonpology is not that it’s insincere, but rather, that it sincerely communicates something ugly.

    I think this may well be a better characterization of a nonpology than what I wrote. But it’s not really related to the main question I was interested in addressing. The question is, why does anyone ever give a nonpology? You could say that a nonpology is a sincere expression, but nobody has to be sincere. Hypothetically, people could just string together exactly the same sequence of letters, whether they internally feel apologetic or not.

  4. snuffcurry says

    Ah, I suppose I didn’t get what you were getting at, then.

    I should think most cultures condition their inhabitants to automatically respond to outrage or criticism, even if it’s only to defend oneself or reiterate the original position. It’s difficult to remain silent in the face of opposition, and the nonpology is one of several available responses. I don’t think every culture values public expressions of sincerity or even performances of them, but variations on the nonpology form appear to be universal, though I don’t know that it emanates from a conscious need to express sincerity given that sincerity is often the last thing called for in a particular situation. Mannered decorum and etiquette over rude and rough spontaneity, as with overapologizers who overstate the harm they’ve caused and the pain they feel.

    We often betray our feelings unwittingly, and the nonpology does double duty in that respect, as it acknowledges that some obligatory expression of regret is socially mandated while also communicating what is and isn’t regretted. Nonpologies appear calculated to deceive, cultivating an attitude that is emotionally measured but also emotionally distant: “other people have emotions or reactions, and this is to their disadvantage, whereas I am always well-reasoned, even when acknowledging this weakness in others.” They take the guise of a self-less affirmation (“I acknowledge your feelings”), although often misrepresenting the criticism, consciously or otherwise, but function as rebuttal (“nevertheless [I am still right]”). I don’t know why people are egotistical and are wary of admitting defeat while longing to preserve their dignity, but I do know that it is so, and that performative regret within the choreographed dance of quasi-reconciliation, where no one departs from their preferred perch, is a powerful social lubricant that may or may not prevent future clashes but for the sake of peace chalks up the present one to misunderstanding rather than guilt or responsibility. I suppose a sincere apology, sincerely felt, is an admission of guilt, not a veiled implication that one’s interlocutor is weak, confused, or ignorant, and thus the true source of conflict.

    Of course, it’s possible to disagree and regret the consequences of the disagreement while acknowledging that the disagreement remains and is inevitable, but the nonpology is not quite that. Something quite snarky about many false apologies, especially ones that feel dutiful to onlookers, which is, indeed, often the precise intent. (So: there are nonpologies and then there are nonpologies, the inadvertent ones and the ones that proudly, loudly declaim I Am Not Really Sorry, Though, LOL). Though, again, we are dutiful in many respects beyond making amends. As with the obligatory smile, that acknowledges the situation might call for one, and thus enabling the smiler to appear normal, socially intelligent, and not intentionally aberrant nor ignorant of expectations.

  5. says

    Yeah, even if I don’t understand exactly why nonpologies exist, I definitely agree that they exist. It seems that, for whatever reason, when a person is not remorseful, but is put in a position of needing to express remorse, they tend to be incapable or unwilling to deliver a good apology. (And I have no reason to think that I would do any better if put in the same situation.)

    If it weren’t for the existence of nonpologies, it might be very difficult to detect sincere remorse at all. The only thing we could tell is whether the person is at least willing to perform the socially obligatory expression of regret, as you put it.

  6. ardipithecus says

    An apology shows the apologists empathy for the wronged.
    A notpology shows the apologists lack of empathy for the wronged.

    Forgiveness goes the other way:

    Forgiveness shows the wronged’s empathy for the perpetrator of the wrong.
    Unforgiveness shows the wronged’s lack of empathy for the perpetrator.

    Empathy is the adhesive that holds a community together. Remorse may be beneficial, but it is not necessary. Empathy is.

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