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What Seinfeld Can Teach Us About Apologies

2013 January 4
by Eric Horowitz

There’s a Seinfeld episode that centers on George’s anger at Jason Hanke over the fact that Hanke refuses to apologize for something that happened at a party of his years earlier. As George tells it, the apartment was cold, but when George asked to borrow a sweater (“preferably cashmere”) Hanke refused and publicly made a big deal about how George would stretch out the neckhole. Hanke ended up giving George a cheap Metlife windbreaker.

From Hanke’s point of view, he doesn’t need to apologize because there was no mistake. His priority was to not let George ruin his sweater, and he took what he felt was the course of action that would best accomplish that. Why would he apologize for something he would do again? George, on the other hand, wants an apology specifically because Hanke displayed so much intent in his refusal. If Hanke accidentally wronged him it would be fine. It’s Hanke’s belief that he did nothing wrong that makes George so infuriated. The same fact — that Hanke knew exactly what he was doing — causes opposite reactions. It makes George crave an apology, but it takes away Hanke’s reason to apologize.

It turns out that the tiff between George and Hanke may be a fairly accurate representation of human nature. According to some new research, the intentionality of an action causes the perpetrator and the victim to feel differently about a potential apology. The study, which was led by Joost Leunissen of Erasmus University, is based on the idea that a victim’s desire for an apology stems from feeling angry and wanting assurance the transgression won’t happen again. In contrast, perpetrators want to make an apology when they feel guilty and want to signal they were happy with the pre-transgression status quo.

Because intentional actions (e.g. eating your roommate’s food) are seen as more likely to occur again, victims are more likely to demand an apology when something seems intentional. But when an action is intentional, perpetrators have likely rationalized it, and thus they’ll feel less guilt. That makes them less likely to apologize when an action is intentional.

This leads to a harmful mismatch:

Because perpetrators ultimately decide whether to apologize or not, it seems likely that apologies will be issued mainly after unintentional transgressions as perpetrators have the highest need to apologize after unintentional transgressions. In contrast, this mismatch would also suggest that victims are unlikely to receive apologies for transgressions for which they particularly desire apologies, namely intentional transgressions.

A series of three experiments supported the researchers’ hypotheses. When asked to think about imaginary situations or real events from their past, victims preferred apologies when the actions were intentional, but perpetrators preferred apologies with their actions were unintentional.

This mismatch makes relationships harder, and it suggests that society is woefully inefficient in teaching people how to maximize the benefits of apologies. An artful apology is a great interpersonal moment where two people engage in an open discussion of how to improve their relationship. But we merely pay lip-service to the idea. Society drills kids to say “I’m sorry,” but it’s to teach them what things are wrong, not to teach them how to apologize. So we have everybody walking around thinking a heartfelt “I’m sorry” is enough when it may mean nothing to the other person.

For functioning adults, real apologies are not about token gestures, they’re about discovering where you could have avoided hurtful actions even while you intentionally performed the broader act that elicited the need for an apology. This is challenging and it often requires difficult conversations that drive at deep fears and insecurities. Perhaps your girlfriend is angry you ditched her to hang out with your buddies even though you knew it’s what you wanted to do. The key to your “apology” is figuring out how you could have done what you wanted while hurting your girlfriend the least.

In the Seinfeld episode, Hanke clearly felt he was supremely right not to give George the sweater, and in his mind what went down was necessary. Hanke’s mistake was in how he went about forbidding George from wearing the sweater. If he courteously turned down George’s request and provided George with something more stylish than a windbreaker, George probably would have been fine with it. What Hanke wanted — for George not to wear the sweater — could have been obtained without the actions that created George’s demand for an apology. Some of the time people don’t want to apologize and some of the time people don’t want an apology. These moments require a real apology — a discussion about where you and the other person disagree on what’s acceptable behavior.

It’s worth pointing out that it wouldn’t be hard to emphasize these elements in schools as a way to improve social development. Throughout the literature students read there are examples of clever ways that disagreements are resolved. Why not spend marginally more time on them in the hope that students will improve their conflict resolution skills? It seems like a good gamble. And though this is just one example of integrating more skills into curricula, there is some legitimate low hanging fruit, in terms of integrating neglected skills into existing lessons.
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Leunissen, J., De Cremer, D., Folmer, C., & van Dijke, M. (2012). The Apology Mismatch: Asymmetries Between Victim’s Need for Apologies and Perpetrator’s Willingness to Apologize Journal of Experimental Social Psychology DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2012.12.005

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