Remember the intense, seemingly physical pain you felt as a kid when an adult told you to say you were sorry? Maybe you kicked Jimmy in the shins, took something you weren’t supposed to or were just generally being a brat. But the worst part about this whole experience wasn’t getting into trouble or getting dessert taken away, it was actually having to apologize. And that distaste for saying you’re sorry hasn’t gone away as an adult either: not apologizing still makes us feel much better than apologizing does.
Psychologists tend to be interested in these sorts of seemingly universal feelings, and recently a few researchers looked into just why it is so rewarding to avoid saying sorry. They asked people to recall transgressions—some as small as cutting someone off on the road, some as big as stealing—then asked these study participants if they had apologized or not and how they felt. The last step: participants could compose an email either apologizing or refusing to apologize.
If you’re a parent, you’ve probably told your kid that apologizing will make you feel better. But what these researchers found is, in fact, the opposite. The email that refused to apologize made people feel much better than the one confessing to the deed and taking the blame.
At NPR, Shankar Vedantam spoke with researcher Tyler G. Okimoto, who explained his interpretation of the results this way:
“When you refuse to apologize, it actually makes you feel more empowered,” he said. “That power and control seems to translate into greater feelings of self-worth.”
Ironically, Okimoto said, people who refused to apologize ended up with boosted feelings of integrity.
So the next time you tell your kids that apologizing will make them feel better in the long run, you might be lying to them. Not that you don’t lie to your kids all the time anyway.
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