In American culture, thanking and apologizing are essential to positive, reciprocal social interaction, while blaming and bragging are seen as negative, undesirable aspects of social interaction.
In a novel piece of research, Shereen J. Chaudhry and George Loewenstein identified why some people struggle with a sincere apology (I’m sorry). They start with the premise that thanking and apologizing imply that the speaker is warm, caring, and generous. Nonetheless, they found that a significant number of people believe that saying “I’m sorry” has the hidden cost of making one seem incompetent or weak. Thus, in order to avoid this cost, many will refuse to apologize with the end result being an increase in conflict and relationship distress.
Conversely, blaming and bragging, which are intended to give off the appearance of strength and competence, come with the not-so-hidden cost of making the person appear arrogant, pompous, and unkind, and as someone who refuses to take responsibility.
According to co-author Shereen J. Chaudhry: “All four of these communications are tools used to transfer responsibility from one person to another. They relay information about credit or blame, and they involve image-based trade-offs between appearing competent and appearing warm.”
“Research has shown that these communications — and their absence — can make or break relationships and affect material outcomes ranging from restaurant tips to medical malpractice settlements,” says co-author George Loewenstein.
Essentially, all four communication forms involve a trade-off or exchange between projecting competence and projecting warmth. Thus, a warm and caring speaker thanks and apologizes, but at the cost of appearing weak and incompetent. Conversely, bragging and blaming projects competence and strength, but at the steep cost of appearing arrogant, selfish or inconsiderate.
Those on the receiving end of these communications experience a different impression on their image — thanking and apologizing raise both perceived competence and warmth, while bragging and blaming decrease this same competence and warmth. Chaudhry explains further that: “These dynamics capture why thanking and apologizing are touchstones of ‘polite’ speech in our culture, while blaming and bragging are often considered taboo.”
“Our theory also can shed light on why, as previous research has found, women tend to apologize more than men,” Chaudhry says. “Society often imposes a ‘warmth premium’ on women, making it more important for them to be perceived as warm as opposed to competent.”
Responsibility Exchange Theory adds another layer to understanding the logic behind the framed non-apologetic (faux-pology) apology: “I’m sorry you feel hurt by what I said!” or, “I’m sorry you feel that way!” The inauthentic, disingenuous faux-pology allows the “non-apologetic apologizer” to feign a contrite heart without taking responsibility for their words or actions. In this scenario, the recipient of such an apology sees little more than empty, meaningless chatter, which can also be interpreted as a way of defining the structure of a relationship (who is trying to be in control or on top and who is being controlled or on the bottom).
In Responsibility Exchange Theory, a genuine, believable, effective apology comes at a cost for the apologizer in order for the recipient of an apology to give it any worth. Failure to show gratitude, give thanks or apologize, can severely undermine and even devastate any relationship, even ending it.
Renowned marriage researcher Dr. John Gottman sees blaming as central to the destructive fabric of the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” These Four Horsemen are behaviors — Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt and Stonewalling — that have been shown to cause severe, long-term damage in any relationship. The Horsemen also have a high predictive value for determining whether a marriage will succeed or fail.
At the core, blame allows a person to put responsibility on someone else (especially so in marriage and family dynamics), thereby circumventing the need to experience the irritation and uncomfortable aspects of looking at their own faults, being responsible, and taking action. Blaming, thus suggests not only fault, but also implies who needs to change (the one being blamed) and who gets to stay the same (the blamer).
“One can spend a lifetime assigning blame,” Abraham Maslow said, without ever having to look for the real cause or solution. Blame reduces the need to take risk or responsibility, it can be used to postpone the need for making a decision, can paralyze growth, create resentments, mistrust and stress, and discourage others from adding value to a relationship.
In the end, blame creates a victim and can leave the one being blamed feeling trapped, emotionally depleted and even powerless. Correspondingly, an apology not only conveys warmth, caring and compassion to the recipient (without the perceived weakness and incompetence the apologizer might self-perceive), it can be incredibly effective at disarming anger and hurt, and replacing it with increased trust and emotional bonding.
In the end, blame sabotages relationships by surreptitiously transferring responsibility, while sincere apologies and a thankful approach help heal, encourage sincerity and honesty, and cultivate a much stronger and trusting emotional bond.
Shereen Chaudhry and George Loewenstein. “Thanking, Apologizing, Bragging, and Blaming: Responsibility Exchange Theory and the Currency of Communication.” Psychological Review (First published: February 14, 2019) DOI: 10.1037/rev0000139