But new research led by The University of Western Australia provides insight into saying sorry – and suggests that nice people do it, with honest and humble people the most likely to apologise.
For their paper published recently in Personality and Individual Differences, lead author UWA’s Dr Patrick Dunlop and colleagues from two Canadian universities recruited more than 150 Australians and 200 Canadians – and observers who knew them well – and asked them to fill out questionnaires.
The researchers measured the recruits’ responses against the HEXACO model, a personality trait model developed by Canada-based co-authors Kibeom Lee and Michael Ashton.
“HEXACO is an acronym for Honesty-humility, Emotionality, eXtraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness and Openness to experience,” Dr Dunlop said.
The co-authors also found, to their surprise, that Conscientious people tended to be apologetic.
“Conscientiousness is a trait that is often thought of as being centred on an orientation towards getting things – that is, activities, work, and so on – done,” he said.
“People with this personality type are organised and diligent. You can count on them. We didn’t expect these people to necessarily be more willing to apologise, but perhaps they are prone to apologise because they see saying sorry as a means of resolving an unfinished task; like resolving a conflict.”
Dr Dunlop said he came up with the idea of the study when he read an article in Scientific American Mind that reported on work by Canadian researchers, led by Andrew Howell. That research linked apologising to well-being and soft-heartedness.
“It made me reflect on the various people I know. Some people refuse to apologise even if it’s been proven that they’ve transgressed,” he said.
“Those who struggle to apologise tend to be low on the Honesty-Humility scale and may think their misbehaviour is OK. They also perhaps see saying “sorry” as lowering themselves. Sometimes these people are generally antisocial, may be unethical and may be inclined to seek vengeance to get even with someone. Of course this isn’t the case for all people who refuse to apologise, but there was a notable association.”
Dr Dunlop said while there had been a lot of research on victims’ willingness to forgive someone who had hurt them in some way, little investigation had been undertaken into the factors that predicted forgiveness-seeking, or apologising.
He also noted that this research was focused on the tendency or willingness to apologise, but he is interested in investigating the situational factors that might predict when people will apologise. His hunch is that people lower on Honesty-Humility might tend to apologise only when they have to, or if they see a strategic benefit in doing so. For example, apologising to an influential person might make a good impression on them and lead to opportunities, but apologising to a subordinate might not.