New study shows apologizing may increase hurt feelings

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New research conducted by UT and Dartmouth psychologists suggests that apologizing after socially rejecting someone does little to repair hurt feelings and, in fact, may make matters worse.

The study, released last month in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, said while apologies are usually made with the intention of smoothing ruffled feathers, those who use apologies in their rejection are more likely to upset those they rejected.

“Using both college and community samples, we found that approximately 40 percent of people spontaneously included an apology when trying to reject in a good way,” said Gili Freedman, social psychologist and co-author of the study, in an email. “However, rejections with apologies were associated with more hurt feelings and higher levels of aggression than rejections without apologies.”

Previous research has focused primarily on targets of social rejection. This study aimed to do the opposite, looking instead at the rejectors themselves and how they could effectively use language to minimize negative emotional effects.

In one experiment, participants viewed two rejection interactions with and without an apology. Those who viewed the rejection with an apology felt obligated to express forgiveness, but did not indicate that they felt forgiveness.

“The rejector saying sorry immediately could feel more obligatory, forcing the target to feel compelled to forgive instead of allowing them to work through their initial feelings,” said psychology junior Annaliese Welmaker.

In another experiment, 39 percent of participants included an apology when declining a social request. When participants were asked to imagine themselves in the rejected position, they reported higher feelings of hurt.

The final study showed rejected participants are more likely to seek revenge. Rejectees had the opportunity to give their rejectors hot sauce, after being told that person didn’t like spicy foods. Those who were given apologies were motivated to add more hot sauce to food the rejectors taste tested.

“It’s pretty interesting that the people in the study took revenge because while most people who are told sorry are not going to actually do anything in retaliation, it shows more of the instinct response,” said Alexandra O’Gorman, communication sciences and disorders freshman.

Freedman calls social rejection a “fact of life” and emphasizes the need for research to look at rejectors more in order to fully understand their motivations as well as potential consequences.

“This research provides a first step in understanding the impact of language choices on rejection outcomes,” Freedman said.