'Sorry,' But Study Finds Apologizing Doesn't Help With Rejection

Sep 22, 2017

Rejection is hard. It's not easy to accept, and for a lot of people, it's not easy to deliver a rejection. So why not mix in an apology to soften the bad news?

Well, a recent study found that actually makes it worse.

"When we had people write out rejections, the ones that included apologies wound up being perceived as more hurtful," said Dr. Gili Freedman, a post-doctoral researcher at Dartmouth College and the study's lead author, on Vermont Edition Thursday.

As part of the study, Freedman explains, some participants wrote rejection notes that dealt with one of four hypothetical situations — for instance, rejecting a current roommate who wanted to keep living together. Then a different group read the rejection notes and assessed how they felt receiving the message.

"Across those four scenarios, about 39 percent of people used an apology," Freedman says. "So it was a relatively common occurence."

Freedman says they didn't test people's intentions when deciding to include an apology, nor did they look specifically at the gender of those who apologized.

"When we had people write out rejections, the ones that included apologies wound up being perceived as more hurtful." — Dr. Gili Freedman, the study's lead author

The researchers did though look at why it is that people receiving an apology-laden rejection may not find it helpful in softening the blow.

"We had people watch a rejection unfold — and it either contained an apology or not — and then we asked them about forgiveness," Freedman says. "What we found was that when people viewed the rejection with an apology, they felt obligated to express forgiveness, but they didn't actually feel forgiveness.

"So what we think is happening is that when you reject someone, they're probably going to feel bad 'cause rejection is unpleasant, and if you apologize, all of a sudden they feel like they should say, 'Oh that's okay' or 'I forgive you,' but they don't actually feel that forgiveness. So it's adding a second uncomfortable social scenario to one that's already not so great."    

"What we found was that when people viewed the rejection with an apology, they felt obligated to express forgiveness, but they didn't actually feel forgiveness."

And then there was the hot sauce experiment.

It was a way to examine in-person rejection, Freedman explains, with the following set-up: a participant was told by another person (in this case a research assistant that was in on the situation) that they didn't want to work with them on a task — sometimes with an "I'm sorry" thrown in, sometimes not.

The next task assigned to the rejected participant was to prepare for a taste test by putting hot sauce into a cup, which the person who just rejected them would have to drink — and the participant had learned earlier that this other person isn't a spicy food fan.

"The idea is the more hot sauce they give, the more aggression they're enacting, right?" Freedman says. "They're trying to make that other person have an unpleasant or possibly painful experience. ... And so we found that when they received that rejection with the apology, they were more likely to give more hot sauce than when they got the rejection without the apology."

Freeman acknowledges that its kind of an odd situation, but notes "if we want to measure aggression in the lab, we have to do it in a way that is ethical and makes sense. And so we can't have people actually aggress against each other." 

Freedman says that perhaps with more research, they can make strides in figuring out what phrasing actually can help lessen the pain when delivering rejection.