We’ve all had the experience of having made a mistake that has ended up hurting someone (or an organization, or even our environment). When this happens, most people usually apologize, although these days, the practice is becoming less common.
Why do people or institutions apologize?
One common reason given for why people apologize is “negative affect alleviation.” People feel guilty, and an apology removes the guilt. This view dates to a Freudian model of human behavior where humans have a residue of emotion – in this case, guilt – which, when accumulated, causes distress until emptied.
In the book Mea Culpa: A Sociology of Apology and Reconciliation, Nicholas Tavuchis sees apologies as a complex social system designed to maintain relationships and establish membership in a community, a kind of social exchange that restores social order.
Apologies as a fundamental part of a healthy society are important for several reasons. First, they can mend or heal damaged relationships, either between individuals or groups of people, or even countries. Second, apologies can provide an opportunity for the transgressor to either amend his or her reputation, or provide assurances that the transgression is not a reflection of a pattern of behavior, and therefore not likely to be repeated in the future.
Successful consummate apologies may raise the moral threshold of a society because they promote positive externalities such as increased trust and mutual respect. It is in such a milieu that previously disempowered individuals and groups are using their elevated status to remind others of profound inequities and insult. Apologies are a civilized way to redress these inequities.