Why is it so hard to offer another person an apology? One reason may be that many of our conflicts involve mutual blame—that is, both parties have erred in some way. And Chicago Booth’s Shereen Chaudhry and Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich’s Valeria Burdea find that when that happens, each person may hesitate to offer an apology out of fear they won’t receive one in return.
Narrator: Most of us know that the key to maintaining relationships is knowing how to resolve conflict. And an abundance of research has shown that an apology is a powerful tool for reconciliation. But some disputes never get to the apology, which can leave relationships in limbo for years.
Shereen Chaudhry: In this particular project, I’m interested in mutual-blame conflicts. So that’s situations where there’s not only one person who did something wrong, but both people in some sense are the offender and both people are the victim. So why this is interesting is because now you have a situation where there’s two possible apologies that could take place. And actually, mutual-blame conflicts, we find, tend to be the most common types of conflicts that people recall from their lives.
Narrator: That’s Chicago Booth’s Shereen Chaudhry. She and her coauthor ran two surveys in which they asked participants to recall an unresolved conflict from their life. In one study, 63 percent of participants cited a mutual-blame conflict, whereas in the other, 93 percent of participants did. This suggests that two-sided conflicts are either a significant proportion of the conflicts we experience, or they at least linger in our minds more than any other. At that point, the researchers wanted to understand why these conflicts are so hard to resolve.
Shereen Chaudhry: So what we did was we ran three different surveys across three different public talks of people and had them recall any mutual-blame conflict from their life. And then we asked them to tell us how they would anticipate feeling in several different situations. So you know: Imagine that you apologized, and they didn’t apologize back. You apologized, and they did. They apologized; you didn’t apologize back. And so on. And what we consistently found across these three different populations was that people expected to feel much better if they apologized first and got a return apology than if they apologized and didn’t get a return apology. And in fact, they expected that apologizing would be a negative experience if they didn’t get that return apology, but that it would be positive if they did get that return apology. And this is not just about forgiveness. So one possibility is that getting this return apology is just a signal of forgiveness, and that’s really what you want from other people. But we also asked people: How would you feel if you apologized and they forgave you? And people anticipated not feeling as positively as in the case where they get this return apology. So there’s something special about the other person also taking blame in this mutual-blame conflict that people really value.
Narrator: So how does a mutual-blame conflict play out in an environment where you can’t avoid the person? The researchers looked outside of interpersonal relationships to see how mutual-blame conflict played out in the workplace. For a survey, the researchers created a story about a mutual-blame conflict at work. An employee was assigned to work with a colleague on a project and the person had to generate an analysis in the report. Then the colleague was assigned to check the report for errors, finalize it, and send it off.
Shereen Chaudhry: And in the end, there was an error in the report. And whose fault is that? It turns out that people, when we run an experiment on this and ask people about whose fault it is, most people think it’s mutual blame. So how do these two work colleagues navigate this situation? You know, neither one will want to take the full blame, and blaming the other person could ruin a relationship with somebody that you might have to have an ongoing relationship with. I mean, if you think about it, the cost of an apology is seemingly the same whether you get a return apology or not. If you are responsible for making an error in a report and you say that out loud, I’m sorry I made this error in the report, regardless of what the other person does, it’s now clear to people who heard you that you made an error in the report. But in this project, we proposed people also care about relative blame judgments, so that is how responsible you are for a conflict relative to the other person or people involved. So to be clear about what relative blame means, let’s go back to the workplace example. Your supervisor is furious and you’re having a meeting with the three of you. Now imagine the supervisor has no idea who was responsible for what part, like how you divided the work. So if you were to say to your colleague, “Hey, I’m sorry that I made the error in the report,” and they don’t apologize back, they say, like, “Hey, it’s OK. Don’t worry about it,” the supervisor is going to assume you were the only one responsible for that. This is a case of unilateral blame. But if your colleague were to respond and say, “Oh no, I’m sorry I didn’t catch the error as I said that I would try to do,” now the supervisor knows that at least it’s not unilateral blame, that it’s a case of mutual blame. And this feels better than ending up as the only person to blame.
Narrator: The researchers also had people imagine a scenario where the supervisor was already aware of how they divided the work in hopes to further test the idea that apologizing is costly, at least partly because of how it would impact what observers think. If observers already know who is responsible for what, apologizing feels less costly.
Shereen Chaudhry: And people were much more willing to apologize when the supervisor already knew how the work was divided. So people were much less likely to apologize in the case that the supervisor was uninformed about how the work was divided because apologizing would change how the supervisor evaluated the two of them, specifically how much relative blame they assigned to you.
Narrator: The researchers say that even when there’s not an onlooker, like a supervisor, people still act as if there’s somebody who is uninformed still watching. So does a person’s desire to get a return apology affect their willingness to apologize at all? The researchers find that it does. Many people are more willing to apologize if they think they will receive an apology in return.
Shereen Chaudhry: What this tells us about apologizing is that it’s not a one-sided decision, especially when blame is mutual, that people’s decision to apologize is affected by their expectations of what the other person is gonna do. How are they gonna react? How are they gonna respond? Will they apologize? And why this is especially interesting is that people are often miscalibrated about other people and about how interactions with other people will go. And so if people underestimate how likely it is that they’ll get a return apology, let’s say both people in a diad do, then neither person will be willing to take that first step. Even though both of them are willing to apologize, they won’t find out. And we might observe a lot of suboptimal apology stalemates, where neither person decides to take that sort of leap of faith and resolve the conflict.
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