Apologies don’t work for the powerful, study finds

People with high social status are perceived as insincere when they apologize for a transgression.

January 4, 2018 16:24
3 minute read.
Shas party leader Arye Deri

Shas party leader Arye Deri. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Only this week, Interior Minister Arye Deri was forced to apologize after he tried to force MK Yehudah Glick to leave his house while he was mourning his wife’s death, to vote in the Knesset for a government bill to “protect” Shabbat. But did Deri appear genuinely sorry or just cynical? In a similar vein, some observers have suggested that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should have apologized quickly after it was alleged that he and his wife demanded expensive gifts from billionaires.

But an international study by researchers at the University of Haifa, in the US and the Netherlands, just published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, has found that people with high social status are perceived as insincere when they apologize for a transgression.

This perception applies to the world of business and work, but it’s reasonable to assume it applies to politicians, too.

“When the apologizer is a senior politician... we are inclined to assume that they are better at controlling their emotions and are using them strategically,” said Dr. Arik Cheshin of Haifa University’s department of human services, one of the authors of the study.

“Because we believe that they are trying to achieve something, we perceive them as less sincere in the same situation.

The more senior they are, the less authentic their emotions are perceived as being.”

Do we believe apologies from such people who have committed a transgression? “They are perceived as less sincere” he said. “The more senior they are, the less authentic their emotions are perceived as being. Positions of power come with a disadvantage. People are less inclined to forgive high-status people than those with lower status.”

In a series of experiments with hundreds of participants, the researchers examined whether the power status of a person who committed a transgression influences trust in that person and the ability to forgive them.

In the first part of the experiment, researchers told the participants about an employee who had been found forging documents, leading to the imposition of a fine on the company. They showed the participants pictures of the employee expressing various emotions in a later staff meeting: happiness, sadness, anger and fear. The next stage involved video clips showing the same emotions, but for a different transgression that led to legal problems. Some of the participants were told the person involved was a junior employee, while others were told that he was the company’s CEO.

Subsequently, the researchers examined the same situation, but this time relating to a real incident. They showed the participants a real video clip in which the CEO of Toyota cried and apologized for failing to take action, even though he knew there was a problem with breakdowns in various vehicles. Again, some of the participants thought that the person was a junior employee, while others were told he was the CEO.

The researchers found that in all three cases, the CEO’s emotions were perceived as less sincere than those of the junior employee. When the researchers explored the reason for this difference, it emerged that the participants perceived the manager as someone who could control their emotions and even use them strategically.

“The assumption is that the CEO has much more to lose, and accordingly has a stronger motivation to try to use their emotions to create empathy.

Thus, the participants described them as less sincere.”

Then, participants were asked not only who was perceived as more authentic, but also whether there was a difference in their willingness to forgive a junior or a senior employee in exactly the same situation.

Researchers presented participants with a true case of a CEO who insulted the company’s customers and then posted a video apology on YouTube.

Again, some of the participants were told he was a senior employee and others that he was a junior worker.

Once again, it was found that the CEO was perceived as less sincere and less deserving of forgiveness.

The researchers also found that in the case of the junior employee, the participants gave much more detailed explanations as to why the worker should be forgiven.

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