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Why Murdoch — and the rest of us — often refuse to apologize

murdoch photo
Egotism means never having to say you’re sorry.

Media mogul Rupert Murdoch has refused to apologize for the decision of his editors at the New York Post last week to run the now infamous cover photo that showed two young men, who had nothing to do with the Boston Marathon bombings, under the headline: “BAG MEN: Feds seek these two pictured at Boston Marathon.”

One of the young men, a 17-year-old high-school student, told ABC News that both he and his family were shocked and frightened to see his image connected to the bombings.

Perhaps there are legal reasons why Murdoch — and the Post’s editor-in-chief, Col Allan — refuse to apologize to that young man and his friend. But when I read about the refusal, I also thought of a study published earlier this year by a team of Australian psychologists. They found that the act of refusing to apologize gives individuals an increased sense of power, control and self-esteem.

Apparently, egotism means never having to say you’re sorry.

Dual experiments

For the study, the researchers conducted two experiments. Both were done with American participants. In one, 288 adults, aged 18 to 77, were randomly assigned to different groups. They were all asked to reflect on a time when they did or said something that upset someone. But one group was asked to remember a time when they chose to apologize for the action, another a time when they refused to apologize, and yet another a time when they took no action (neither apologizing nor refusing to apologize).

In the second experiment, 219 adults were randomly assigned to similar groups, but this time the groups that had either apologized or refused to apologize were asked to write an email to the person they had upset that explained why they had or had not apologized.

Participants in both experiments were then asked various questions designed to measure the psychological effects of their action (or non-action). An analysis of those findings revealed that the people who recalled events when they had refused to apologize reported greater feelings of power, control and self-esteem compared to those who recalled events in which they had taken no action. They also reported greater “value integrity,” a psychological factor the researchers define as “keeping one’s values intact and uncorrupted.”

The participants in the apologizing arm of the study also experienced enhanced feelings of value integrity, and those feelings indirectly led to greater self-esteem. Apologizing, however, did not confer greater feelings of power and control.

So, yes, apologizing can make us feel better about ourselves, but refusing to issue a mea culpa can also make us feel better — and sometimes more so.

A reinforcement of antisocial behavior

The findings are “remarkable,” the researchers write, “given that an apology refusal may, in some cases, reinforce commitment to antisocial behavior that has harmed another individual and is largely perceived by others to be unjust.”

The findings may also help explain, the researchers add, why apologies are often so difficult to elicit, whether from a convicted criminal or a corporation’s CEO:

Such findings may help to explain barriers to reconciliation and the seemingly irrational, antisocial, or callous behavior of harm-doers in real-world contexts. For example, in judicial proceedings, even when apologies are inadmissible as evidence of culpability, many offenders will refuse their counsel’s suggestion to apologize despite the likelihood that it will reduce sentencing severity.

Within organizations, effectiveness and learning may be hindered by a leader’s reluctance to admit error and take responsibility, perhaps indicative of a more fundamental tension between the organizational goals that leaders are charged with implementing and their self-oriented goals to maintain power and status.

The study was published in the February 2013 issue of the European Journal of Social Psychology, and can be read in full at that journal’s website.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by jody rooney on 04/25/2013 - 10:24 pm.

    On the other hand….

    The less than sincere apology has become an art form by politicians and a generally meaningless gesture made to appease minority groups.

    Make no mistake I feel many minority groups have been wronged historically and are still wronged by non minorities. I am not sure that an apology is the same as a commitment to improve matters. Statements of regret may make sense but apologies.

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