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.