Getting out of lunch with a work colleague, or skipping Friday-night drinks with your flatmate, is usually as easy as saying ‘I’m sorry’.
But a recent study found that apologising can make rejection feel worse, even thought it may make you feel better.
Researchers at Dartmouth College discovered that saying sorry can make the rejected person feel like they should offer forgiveness, even if their feelings don’t match up.
And the wounded party is more likely to take revenge.
The study’s authors examined more than 1000 participants, to understand how different individuals reacted to being snubbed.
Firstly, the participants, including 600 members of the public and more than 480 psychology students, were asked to respond to various situations in which they would reject a social invitation
For all the situations, participants had to come up with a good way of rejecting Taylor.
The researchers then had volunteers read the rejections and evaluate how hurtful each response was.
They found that 39 percent of participants were found to have issued an apology in their rejections, which were found to increase hurt feelings.
Apologies for the lunch and roommate scenarios, in particular, made volunteers feel worse.
Their feelings were only marginally hurt in the party scenario, and not at all in the date rejection.
In another experiment, researchers tested whether people would seek revenge after a rejection.
The team had 135 participants meet face-to-face after they had been rejected by a planted volunteer, who they were set up to work with on a series of group tasks.
The volunteer would politely reject the participants’ request to work on the group task, with some participants receiving an apology and some not.
One of the group tasks involved a hot sauce taste test, and rejected participants were asked to decide how much hot sauce the group had to taste.
In some instances, the planted volunteer would say that they hated spicy food before leaving the room.
Those who received an apology were more likely to take revenge and give the group more hot sauce, even if they knew that their peer hated the condiment.
‘We know that people often don’t want to admit that they have hurt feelings, so in some of the studies, we looked at how much people wanted to seek revenge,’ explained lead researcher Dr. Gili Freedman
‘As predicted, rejections that contained the words ‘I’m sorry’ led to worse outcomes than rejections without apologies; participants allocated more hot sauce,’ the authors wrote.
‘The participants believed the confederate did not like spicy food and, therefore, the greater allocation likely reflected a hostile act designed to hurt the confederate.’
Finally, researchers tested whether rejections with apologies affect forgiveness.
Participants were shown videos of real-life rejections, some with apologies and some not.
The study found that people were more likely to feel as if the rejected party should express forgiveness if an apology was given.
While an apology may have good intentions, the researchers believe it can also be a selfish act.
Dr Freedman said: ‘It is possible that rejectors may feel better about themselves if they apologize.
‘We intend to examine when rejectors are motivated to feel better about themselves and when they would rather put the rejectee’s needs ahead of their own.’
The study’s findings were published last month in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.