In Brief

The wronged don't distinguish between coerced apologies and spontaneous ones, but outside observers do, according to a study in the March Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 92, No. 3, pages 418-433). What's more, this insincerity-blindness may actually protect people's self-esteem, says study author Jane Risen, a social psychology graduate student at Cornell University.

"You want to think of yourself-and have other people view you-as a kind and forgiving person," Risen notes.

In the first in a series of studies, Risen and her advisor, Thomas Gilovich, PhD, brought 130 undergraduate students into the lab in pairs. The researchers then assigned one student to work with "Andrew" (a research assistant posing as a participant) on a puzzle requiring teamwork. Each correctly placed piece earned the team 25 cents. The other student observed the interaction alongside "Lynn," another fake participant.

A few minutes into the experiment, Andrew received a phone call, and he gossiped for several minutes instead of working. After getting off the phone, Andrew continued to sabotage the real participant by giving unclear directions for completing the puzzle.

After time ran out, Andrew spontaneously apologized in one third of the trials. In another third, he apologized only after Lynn said, "I can't believe you took a phone call...you really need to apologize." And in the remainder of the sessions, Andrew did not apologize.

After the experiment, the real participants filled out surveys where they indicated what percentage of the money they felt each person should receive. The outside observers awarded Andrew only 31 percent of the money when he didn't apologize, and they gave him even less-19 percent-when he apologized after being reprimanded. That figure jumped up to 34 percent when Andrew apologized spontaneously.

Andrew's task partners were more generous, giving him 36 percent of the winnings when he didn't apologize. What's more, they did not distinguish between the heartfelt and coerced apologies, as they gave Andrew the same amount-about 40 percent-in either condition.

A follow-up experiment shed some light on why wronged people may be so quick to accept insincere apologies. In it, 67 participants read vignettes where an employee showed up late to work, getting his colleague into trouble. In half of the stories, the employee apologized to his colleague spontaneously, and in the other half he apologized only after being asked. The participants then imagined themselves accepting or rejecting the apology before rating themselves on a variety of positive and negative traits. After accepting the apology, participants tended to view themselves more positively than after they rejected the apology.

The phenomenon of people being quicker to accept apologies than outside observers is something that Risen has noticed in her everyday life.

"It's often easier for you to forgive someone who has hurt you than...someone who has hurt a friend," says Risen.

-S. Dingfelder